My night in Thar had ended in music, and so too did the next day begin.
After breakfast in Irfan’s office (at which I was most pleased to see that delicious makan’u-maaki once again), we were introduced to a young man named Zawar Hussain, who, we were told, is a “rising star of Sindh.” I didn’t know what was meant by that until, moments later, he burst into song. He is a slim young lad whose physical presence takes up very little space, but his voice is strong and easily could fill much larger rooms than the one we were in. Although most of the Sindhi poetry he was singing is still far beyond my level of understanding, I was able to recognize the text as Shah Latif’s tale of Sassui and Punhoon. The legend has it that the Baloch prince Punhoon had traveled all the way to Bhambore in Sindh to see Sassui, so renowned was she for her beauty. The two fell in love and were married; but this angered Punhoon’s brothers so much that they drugged him and dragged him back to Balochistan on camels. The song of Sassui is, therefore, one of grief and longing, as she sets out on her own to follow him across the desert. She is willing to face all the blistering hardships of the terrain in order to seek her beloved. And this is what Zawar Hussain sang to us that morning:
And Zawar’s song sets the tone for what follows. Soon after this performance, my buddies and I set out to visit a village where the means of living have changed very little in the centuries since the Sassui of Latif's tale set out on her journey.
But -- first I would like to step out of order here to recount one other story from Radio Mithi, which actually took place after our breakfast but before hearing Zawar’s song. As Mustafa (Irfan’s chef) cleared away our breakfast dishes, Irfan mentioned that there was a children’s program currently live on air, and would I like to see it? And of course I was eager to see it. So we left his office and crossed the now-familiar small and sunny courtyard to the production side of the radio building.
A small thicket of child-sized shoes had covered the floor right outside the studio door, to which we (Irfan and I) dutifully added our own shoes, and then attempted to enter the studio as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the program in progress. But surely it must have been a great distraction to the children and the program host to see the station director enter their space along with a clearly foreign female guest. But, like the dauntless radio reader the previous day, the present crowd also kept their focus admirably -- at least the ones who were currently speaking into the microphone. The younger children on the periphery did turn their large eyes to us to stare with an expressionless curiosity.
Irfan and I sat down on the floor, where about a dozen children were gathered around a pair of microphones. A man sat at one of the mics, interviewing a boy seated at the other. Irfan waited until they had reached a pause, and then borrowed the presenter’s mic. Irfan spoke in Sindhi, which the children there must have been able to understand, though I think they were primarily Dhatki speakers. And I could not understand everything that Irfan said, but I understood when he asked the boy at the other mic, “I heard you say before that English (Angrezi) was your favorite subject in school, is that right?”
“Yes,” said the unsuspecting boy.
“That’s great,” continued Irfan. “But have you ever met a real Angrez in person before?” (In South Asian parlance, any native English speaker counts as being “English,” including Americans. Being a lifelong Anglophile, I love being referred to in this way as an “Englishwoman.”)
The boy shook his head in an innocent ‘no.’
“Well, now you have,” said Irfan (still speaking in Sindhi). “My guest, Ms Emily, comes from America.” And he handed the microphone to me. I said a few words about how lovely it was to be visiting Mithi. I tried to keep my language very simple, though probably it was still too much for most of the children listening to the program. Nonetheless, I suspect that our young fellow who loves English class at school was able to understand a bit of it.
Then I handed back the microphone to the regular presenter, and we let them all continue with their show as we slipped out again, as quietly as we could. We returned then to Irfan’s office, which is where young Zawar Hussain was waiting patiently to sing for us -- but I have already narrated that part.
After we applauded Zawar and bade him farewell, we set out again for a village. We were going this time to the village of Mustafa, the chef. We took two cars now -- Mustafa and Hanif (Irfan’s driver) led the way in one car, and Irfan drove the rest of us (me, Naz, Khatau Jani) along behind.
The sand of the desert is a bright white in the noon-time sun. This is my least favorite time of day for photography -- when everything is awash with too much light, and colors tend to lose themselves in the glare, and eyes wrinkle up into squinting expressions or are lost behind dark sunglasses. But I was fortunate to be visiting in the cool of November, when only light is a problem, and not heat. The November sun, for all its brightness, is mild in its temperature. I can only imagine what that glare must feel like in the stinging summers.
It was only a short ride to Mustafa’s village, and we parked our cars on a stretch of white road that was almost indistinguishable from the gleaming sand around it. A pair of young girls who were standing there looked up at us with forlorn expressions as we got out of the car.
Yesterday’s village had been tucked into the side of a sand dune and had appeared to us out of that misty sunset as if from a dream. Mustafa’s village, by contrast, was set mundanely on more even ground, and the clay walls and mud roofs felt perfectly solid as they stood fending off the beating sun. There was far more trash on the ground, gathered in heaps and scattered all about the sandy earth. Trash collection is lacking even in urban areas of Sindh--so what are desert villagers expected to do with it all? It can hardly be surprising that wrappers and plastic trimmings of modern consumerism, having reached the village, have proceeded to pollute it.
There were no peacocks wandering in the shadows. There weren’t as many sources of color anywhere--not as many bold and beautiful rillies, not as many women draped in queenly colors. I might have thought that the comparatively muted colors were the result of my faulty memory, but my photographs seem to confirm it. I, in my hot-pink dress, was far more brightly dressed than the village women. However, many of the women I would soon meet did not wish to be photographed, so the photographic record can’t represent the full range of what I saw that day.
Irfan told me that Mustafa’s female relatives had wished to meet me, so I should walk with him towards the nearby cluster of huts. My buddies, being male, were not invited, but they would be nearby, visiting with the village menfolk. So I followed Mustafa across the sandy terrain and asked him a few questions. He could speak only a very tiny amount of English, but we managed to communicate in a mixture of Sindhi and Urdu. He told me that his sister and his mother especially were excited to meet me. I asked if he had learned to cook here in the village. He said yes, but was eager to tell me that cooking was not his only profession: he had also worked as a photographer and a makeup artist. I was impressed that he had found opportunities like this that brought him out of the village -- he had found work with some sort of a broadcasting company in a major city, perhaps Hyderabad -- though I wasn’t able to catch all the details.
We crossed into a sunny courtyard, where a few children were wandering at the edges, and a few small and sleepy-looking goats were resting. It seemed very quiet and still -- perhaps many villagers were indoors avoiding the bright midday sun. But after a few minutes some more women and children started to emerge, and Mustafa pointed to his sister, who was carrying a very young child. She approached and greeted me warmly. She was a very short woman of a rounded figure, and she seemed to be of an indeterminate age. Her appearance seemed much older than her brother -- and I could not tell if this was the result of years or of the difficulty of her lifestyle in the village. One of her eyes gazed at me clearly and solidly, but the other seemed enlarged and discolored, perhaps the result of some childhood disease,. The child she was carrying, though only a toddler, seemed quite large against her squat frame, and it seemed to me he would be quite heavy in her arms. But she was also spirited and strong, despite those other visible signs of hardship.
Soon I also met her mother, who appeared in the doorway of one of the huts. To my eyes she looked almost identical to the daughter - only a little bit farther along on the path of time and aging, but not so very much farther. This led me to wonder whether perhaps the hardships of poverty are weighted unexpectedly early in life, causing women to age more quickly in early years. And perhaps that is the case in any situation where childhood is so promptly followed by -- or in some cases even overlaps with -- childbearing.
I was invited into one of the houses, which was in this case not one of the round huts, but a rectangular and more spacious one, built of the same smooth-edged mud clay material. There was very little inside it apart from two khattas (four-legged cots with woven surfaces for sitting or lying on). I was urged to make myself comfortable on the khattas, while Mustafa’s sister sat on the other with her child, and Mustafa remained standing. My eyes adjusted to the dimness inside the house, which was a stark contrast to the flooding sunlight just outside the door. I was asked if I would take some tea--to which I naturally said yes.
Mustafa’s sister was talking -- partly to him, and partly to me, though I sadly wasn’t able to understand much of anything at all. I am not even sure at this point whether she was speaking Sindhi or Dhatki; if it was Sindhi, then it was in a local accent that my mind could not penetrate. Without understanding the words, I could nonetheless perceive a certain intelligence and clarity in the way she was expressing herself. I wished that I could leap forward several years in my language learning to be able to connect with her in some real way.
As it was, I caught only a few words and ideas -- particularly the word “ghareebi” (poverty), which she said more than once. “We are very poor people,” she told me. I wasn’t sure if she was telling me this out of self-consciousness, or perhaps some degree of embarrassment at the comparison to myself coming from visible privilege, or to gain sympathy, or for some other reason entirely. But I felt all of these things on her behalf, upon hearing her speak.
I responded rather helplessly--and probably in English--that they were nonetheless rich in spirit and hospitality. By this point I had been presented with a cup of hot and milky tea, which was as delicious there in the village as it is anywhere else. Sindhi hospitality is a theme throughout this blog--in a way, all of this writing is an ode to Sindhi hospitality--and this is a quality that is common to all the people who have welcomed me into their homes and lives during my travels. Guests are always honored in Sindhi culture, even among people who have almost no possessions to call their own. I felt this as I sat in perfect comfort on the khatta in the shady house, drinking sweetened milky tea, protected against all the hardships of life that these villagers face each day. Because the others were out and about -- working, hauling water from wells, herding their livestock, tending their children. Theirs is not a life of idle tea-drinking on comfortable cots. But for a guest, they will always take time and care to make a comfortable space for visiting, which is an honor indeed.
Mustafa had taken my camera into his hands and was snapping pictures of me there with my tea. The results are mostly not in good focus or properly exposed, but that is only the result of my not being able to communicate to him well enough how to use the settings on my camera (he does have, after all, some experience in photography--just not with my camera model). And he held on to the camera as we went back outside, instructing me to go and pose in front of this or that hut while he took pics.
I knelt down to stroke a small goat who was loitering about in the courtyard. Anyone who knows me knows my curiously intense love of goats -- somehow I can’t resist them, with their blunt round heads and rambunctious energy. I love the simple joyfulness in the way they prance about butt into things, and their complete lack of shyness, and the way they try to munch harmlessly on anything they can find. I could happily spend hours in the presence of goats. I seek them out here in America, too, but they are harder to find here. You have to go visit distant rural farms and petting zoos to find a goat. In Sindh, however, goats and goatherds can be found anywhere, even in cities. But they are a part of the fabric of life in villages especially, and their hardy gentleness fits most naturally into this context.
Some of the village children were watching from a slight distance and saw me smiling at this small goat. One of the children picked up another, even smaller goat, and brought it to me. I sat down on the ground so that I could take the little goat into my lap. Mustafa seemed worried for a moment, and said, “na Adee, tawhaanja kapra kharaab theenda!” (No sister, your clothes will get dirty.)
“Na na, mushkil konahey,” I managed to respond (‘no no, it’s no problem’), trying to convey that a bit of dirt on my clothes was a small price to pay for the innocent joy of holding a goat, in my opinion.
The children seemed delighted -- though certainly not more delighted than I was -- and one by one they kept bringing me more small animals to play with. Mustafa still had my camera and took some more pictures as all this happened, there on the smooth clay floor of the sunny courtyard. The warmth in the children’s smiles and giggles as they brought me their animals is probably my sweetest memory from Thar.
And I would have happily stayed there with those children and their goats and lambs for hours, if there had been no time constraints. But the day was advancing, and the time had come for me to rejoin my buddies. So I walked with Mustafa down a lane and then across a sandy passage to where the menfolk were gathered. They were outside as well, in another courtyard, where there were three cots arranged in a U-configuration. This area was a little bit shadier due to its proximity to various spindly desert trees and high shrubs. And a charming gathering it was -- several generations of men and boys were clustered around my buddies.
As I approached, the small crowd parted for me, clearing off one of the cots completely so that I could sit on it undisturbed. The fellows who were thus displaced moved instead around the edges of the gathering and stood while I took my place on the cot. Though I certainly didn’t need all that room to myself, I did appreciate their courtesy. A lady can always expect such courtesies in Sindh, I have found -- especially as an honored guest. Occasionally I have been asked if I had ever felt threatened or preyed upon by men during my travels, and I’m happy to respond that no such thing has ever happened to me, and that my presence and person have been given more respect and honor in Pakistan than anywhere else I’ve been. And that this courtesy is the same among all classes--whether I am in a village or among intellectuals or in the presence of some high official or other.
In any event, we did not linger very long in that setting, with the three khattas and the sun and dappled shade. But we stayed long enough for Irfan to introduce me to one of the oldest gentlemen gathered there.
“He has been telling me,” said Irfan, “about how much he loves to listen to the radio. He listens to my station, of course, but he also tunes in regularly to the BBC Urdu Service. He has been a loyal listener for decades. Look, he brought out his radio to show us.”
The elderly gentleman lifted his machine onto his lap -- a sturdy metal box of an older vintage such that I haven’t seen in many years. This was a radio from the days before cheap electronic displays, from the analogue days, when you would turn a smooth dial to navigate across the radio spectrum, across seas of static onto small islands of active signal. This radio has been working for decades, keeping its owner connected to the broader world (the BBC! the same radio service that keeps me connected to the world every day). And somehow this steadfast machine has continued to capture those signals, despite lost knobs and warped metal and decades of desert sand threatening to grind down its inner workings.
That old gentleman must have thousands of fascinating stories to tell from his own life -- for a man who listens is one who perceives -- but unfortunately I was not able to stay and hear any of them. It was already time for us to be leaving. We were expected back in Hyderabad by early evening, and we had a long road journey ahead of us. So we said our farewells to Mustafa and his fellow villagers. Among the children who had gathered near us in those last moments were the two girls who had been standing there by the car when we arrived, and whose faces had struck me as forlorn. But in the whirlwind of new sights, I had not noticed that these were the same two girls -- but fortunately my camera has preserved them so that I can make the connection. First impressions are often deceptive: those faces that had seemed rather blank and lost now seemed calm, curious, radiant. Their lives are difficult, no doubt, and they live under a constant strain of poverty -- but you cannot fail to see the grace and depth of their spirit when you spend even a small amount of time with them. I would have loved to spend much more time at their side.
But as it was, we climbed back into our two vehicles, which proceeded to grind their way back out on the sandy roads. When we reached the edge of Mithi, we got out and said goodbye to Khatau Jani, who then headed back to his normal life in his small and beautiful city. And our driver, Hanif, once again took the wheel, while I sat in the front seat, with Naz and Irfan in the back. And the four of us were on our way out of the desert, soon to leave that strange and wonderful place, with its peacocks and its prickly shrubs and ancient radios.
But we took a different route this time -- not the new commuter road that had carried us so smoothly before, but another, rockier one, which led us to a different exit of the desert. But before that exit, just inside the desert gates, there was an old fort, Naukot, which was our reason to take this route. Naukot has a similar design to other Sindhi forts I have visited (Kot Diji and Ranikot), with vast mud-brick battlements, and rounded towers. Of those three, Naukot is the newest -- only 200 years old, compared to Kot Diji’s 250, and and Ranikot’s exact age is unknown. It was built by one of the Talpur emperors, Mir Karam Ali Khan Talpur, in 1814. This same Talpur is also the one who built and is buried in the Hyderabad tombs, which I wrote about in an earlier entry. And our same buddy, Ishtiaq Ansari, who oversaw the beautiful restoration of those tombs is now also heading the effort to repair and renovate Naukot Fort. Our visit there was a short one, however--owing in part to my own travel-saturated exhaustion. We drove right inside high gate in our car--a gate that would be more naturally traversed on camel-back, or even better, on an elephant. But we drove right in. And we saw the sights, climbed the ramparts, took some pictures.
It was a brief but interesting stop, worthy of further thought -- perhaps in a future chapter in which I detail my visits to the other forts as well. But for now, it is simply a bit of a post-script to the other parts of my Thari journey.
The rest of the ride back to Hyderabad was, for me, a rough one. This road was not smooth and straight, as the previous day’s road had been, but rather something of a ruin itself. Our intrepid driver, Hanif, had to keep constantly alert so as not to slam too riotously over the numerous speed-breakers -- and Sindhi speed-breakers are no gentle speed bumps like we know here in the States, but rather steep and pointed little walls, which Papa Saeed likes to call “car-breakers.” And apart from that, pot-holes like small canyons sank into the road at regular intervals, the results of flooding and erosion and neglect. And Hyderabad itself seemed elusive on this afternoon, because when we finally approached the city limits, we found an enormous traffic jam blocking the way completely. A long detour and second attempt met with yet another closed road, and only the third lengthy detour succeeded in delivering us all back to Inam’s house.
But all in all, what tiny difficulties those were--surely not even worthy of minor grumpiness as I sat in the car. After all, I had a comfortable reclining seat to myself, in a safe if bouncy vehicle, with climate control, and kind friends as well. To quell my grumpiness, I’d have done well to remember the diligent Sassui, who braved a far longer journey in the same direction, and without any vehicle at all, and no comforts, and no companions. That legendary queen traversed her desert homeland with nothing at all to protect her, apart from the love of her heart, as she sang:
“Palak’a na rahey dil to reea, waru miyan Khan Baloch….palak’a na rahey.”
Photos from this episode.....
There was almost no light left as my traveling companions and I departed from the village, rumbling along that strange hilly road whose edges were now even more obscured by dust and darkness. I think we were all quiet for some minutes then, allowing the strangeness and mystery of the place to sink into us a bit longer.
Or perhaps only I was quiet, sitting there in the front seat and watching the shadowy dunes drift by, while my buddies were pleasantly chatting in the back seat. The three of them, Irfan, Naz, and Khatau Jani, all squished together in that small space into one affable lump of friendliness. And I should also count our driver, Hanif, among my companions, because he was also a pleasant presence in all these various scenes that I am describing.
As we left that broad wild desert terrain and reentered the narrow streets of the city, I inquired as to what we were doing next. “We are going to visit that mandir!” answered Naz.
And I recalled that earlier in the day, my buddies had asked around to find out what times prayers would be offered at the Hindu temples (mandirs) in the city, and they had determined that the Shri Krishna Mandir would be holding prayers at just the right time in the evening. I cannot remember now how many mandirs there are in Mithi, though I did ask -- it was something like 8 or 10, perhaps. In any case, it needs to be a substantial number, to serve the majority Hindu community in Mithi (see my previous blog entry for a bit more on that topic).
Even in my travels in other parts of Sindh, where Hindus are a small minority, I have been given many opportunities to learn about Hindu worship in Pakistan. Eventually I will write up an account of my earlier visit to the beautiful Saadh Bello mandir in Sukkur, for example -- a golden-yellow temple that floats on a small island in the middle of the Indus. And I have also visited the shrine of Udero Lal, near Bhit Shah, where a Hindu holy site stands adjoining a Muslim shrine, connected by a small courtyard. Both of those visits deserve attention in their own right -- but I mention them now in order to make it clear that Hinduism and other minority religions too are very much alive in Pakistan, even though it is an Islamic Republic. Others may comment on the difficulty of being a member of a minority in this Islamic nation, and I do not deny those difficulties -- but another reality is just as clear to me, which is that the majority of Pakistanis respect and honor all faiths in their hearts. Most of my Muslim friends, when I ask them about these topics, answer sincerely that their own strong faith in Allah commands them also to be respectful of other faiths, and to look upon all humanity as one.
So -- this visit was not going to be my first visit to a Hindu temple in Sindh, but it would still be unique, because I had not yet witnessed any prayers or rituals inside one of these temples. There was also a special energy humming around the dimly lit streets of the city, because it was just a few days before Diwali, and the local children were buzzing around street vendors’ carts, picking out their favorite sparklers and firecrackers for the holiday. And quite a number of impatient firecrackers could be heard to go off that evening as well.
Our car stopped in one of countless shadowy and bustling streets in the city of Mithi, near the Press Club, which would be our destination a little later when the inevitable need for tea would arise. From this spot we could easily walk to the mandir in question -- easily in terms of distance, though the walk was a bit harrowing to me in another sense. There is no separate place for pedestrians to walk in those narrow streets -- not here or in any typical Sindhi town. So people of all ages traveling on foot must share the path with vehicles of all sorts and moving in all possible directions -- cars, motorcycles, carts, and not a small number of wandering cows and bulls (a sacred symbol, of course, in Hindu Mithi). Of these, the only ones that I find genuinely stressful are the motorcycles, which seemed to rev about with wild abandon, squeezing themselves suddenly through tiny spaces between pedestrians. Avoiding their paths seems to be second nature to my Sindhi friends, but for me it is a rather enervating pursuit, especially in such darkness, where tripping on stationary things is also a distinct possibility.
But I did my best to stay close to where my buddies were walking, and managed to get by without any unexpected tumbles or collisions. “It is useful that you are dressed locally!” Naz was saying as we dodged along the alleyway.
“Yes, that was intentional,” I responded. I was wearing a very simple traditional suit that day, modest and loose-fitting, with colorful embroidery and mirrorwork. All of the Sindhi clothes that I wear are gifts that I have received from family and beloved friends, and of these, the majority are traditional in style, meaning that they are examples of Sindhi handicraft -- and not necessarily the sort of clothing that urban women in Sindh wear on a daily basis. But I’ll save the differences between those kinds of attire for some other blog post. Suffice it to say that the outfit I had chosen for that day not only disguised my Western-ness, but also my modern-ness, making me appear -- at least from a distance -- something like a local. And though the lightness of my skin always draws the attention of those who notice, there is never any hesitation among Sindhi people to accept me as one of their own, and quickly, seeing that I am comfortable in their cultural attire.
Along one of these dark streets, the walls opened in a high archway, through which a walkway ascended at a steep grade. This was our mandir. Up this ramping walkway was a colorful though shadowy courtyard, where we took off our shoes. It was not as dark here as on the street, however, because much light was escaping from within the mandir itself, where there was no shortage of illumination. We moved inward toward that light, ringing the hanging bell on our way. Some of my readers may be unfamiliar with Hindu temple bells -- and I am sure that there is much more symbolism in them than I am yet aware. But I can offer for the moment that it is believed that sounding the bell will wake the Gods inside and prepare them to hear your prayer. But I think there is much more meaning in these bells than that -- notions of time and peace and vibration and divinity -- which perhaps I will learn more about in the future.
Actually, the impressions that I can offer from that evening in the mandir are in general just as hazy and naive as my above description of the temple bells -- though I believe they are still worth sharing. I do not pretend to be an expert (about this or any other aspect of Sindh, really) -- instead, what merit my observations might have comes from the freshness of my naive perspective.
Inside the mandir, there is really only one thing (apart from the highly decorative walls), and that is the central shrine. In this case, the shrine is not in the very center of the room, but not up against the far wall either -- the reason for that being, I would soon discover, that it is necessary to be able to walk behind it, and to circle all around it.
The statue of the god in the shrine itself is, to the best of my understanding, the most important element of the temple. In this case, of course, it is a statue of Krishna, though in other temples you would find other gods -- the powerful Shiva, Ganesh with his elephant head, the monkey-god Hanuman, etc. And it is believed that these gods come to inhabit their statues during worship; thus offerings are made to the statues, and incense and candles lit in their honor. (Again I want to stress that my understanding of the subject is minimal, but that I know there are thousands of layers of symbolism and complexity to all this, which can be understood by those who wish to learn.)
But it was a fortunate coincidence for me that the iconography of this particular temple was all devoted to Krishna and his associates, simply because Krishna happens to be the Hindu god with whom I am most familiar. Through my study of kathak dance and rudimentary knowledge of the Mahabharata, I can at least identify Krishna as the blue-skinned god of the dance, playing his flute to the delight of his love-intoxicated Gopinis (cow-herding girls); I can recognize him by his peacock feather and his bansuri (wooden flute), and I can identify the woman at his side as Radha, his partner and beloved. And these were the scenes illustrated on the walls of his mandir.
At first, my buddies and I were the only people inside the temple, apart from one or two men who seemed to be priests or caretakers of the place, and my buddies were chatting with them cordially. I think it’s worth emphasizing here again that this was a moment of genuine interfaith exchange -- because out of the four of us (Naz, Irfan, Khatau Jani, and me), only Khatau is a Hindu. My Muslim friends treat the mandir with respect and reverence, and they are just as eager to share Hindu traditions with me (their foreign Christian friend) as they are to explain their own religious customs. And for Khatau, there was clearly nothing unusual in inviting his non-Hindu friends to come to a mandir with him. There seemed to be no difference between us all; we were all part of the same human fabric.
I came to realize around this point that the reason the interior of the temple was empty was that the worshippers were gathering outside and preparing to enter. Naz alerted me to this fact and I went out to watch and to record the proceedings. A small crowd of people of various ages, men children, had gathered with candles at the door of the mandir. (In my memory there were women also - but my video doesn’t reveal any. Possibly they were present but avoided my camera.) They began by ringing that bell loudly and persistently, adding also to that sound-texture repeated strikes against a small gong, and tones from a kind of a fluty whistle. Then they entered the temple and stood before the shrine, where they began to sing. It was a chant, I suppose, and not a song, but they sang it with full voices, invoking words that they all must have memorized long ago. They sang most of the lines in unison, but at key moments they broke into two-part harmony. After a few verses had past, a gentleman who seemed to be the leader came forward and received a tray with a candle from within the shrine. He swayed it in circular motions as the chant continued, and then eventually led the group in a procession around and around the shrine, all still singing, but now and again pausing from their circling walk in order to touch the small cradles that swing at the base of the shrine.
service may feel exotic to you (if you are not Hindu), I think you will still recognize some things that are familiar and common to worship in all religions: a sense of awareness of a group and a sincerity in supplication; an invocation of something very ancient; a natural pacing and rhythm of ritual -- a pace to which boisterous young children have a hard time adjusting themselves (and children are indeed the same across the globe!).
2. Lights, then Music
Our next destination would be the Mithi Press Club, but we stopped along the way at a brightly-lit bookshop that seemed a colorful oasis in those dark streets of the city, by virtue of its densely lined walls of brightly colored (mostly Sindhi) books. It was explained to me that this shop was owned by Khatau Jani’s family and run (I think) by his brother Kishore (if I am remembering his name right). That family connection seemed enough reason to stop in, but I soon realized that we had a more pragmatic goal to accomplish, which was to make a photocopy of my passport. The guest house where we were staying had asked for such a copy, so I had entrusted my passport to Naz earlier in the day. But photocopiers, it turns out, are a little bit hard to come by in Mithi, and that was the reason we had come specifically to this bookstore to make a copy.
So that was a brief stop, and our tea in the Press Club was also brief and pleasant, and probably not worthy of further narration here. I may at some time return to the phenomenon of the “Press Club,” which seems to have a greater significance in the journalistic community in Sindh than it does in America - but that’s for another time. I will offer this shadowy photographic impression of the Mithi Press Club, however, which contains almost my entire memory of the place:
This was the last that I would see of the inner city of Mithi, for this trip, anyway. It was by this point about 8:00 in the evening, which is still a bit early for dinner (by Pakistani standards, anyway). So my buddies told Hanif to drive us to a place called Gaddhi Bhit, which translates roughly to “High Dune.” A wide plateau has been leveled upon this high dune, with a big open space (seems like it would be perfect for concerts, though from what I gathered it isn’t often used that way) next to a large monument of relatively recent construction. The monument itself forms a partial wall at the edge of the mound’s plateau, intercut with archways, beyond which you can see all the lights of the city of Mithi as it lies nestled into the desert.
I sat down on the floor of this arched monument for a while, looking out at the expanse in the darkness. My buddies were standing somewhere nearby, chatting pleasantly as they do. I think they are probably used to these moments when I sit slightly apart, in silence -- at least, they don’t seem bothered by it. I think they know that it is not a sign that I am moody or unhappy, but merely that I need some time to absorb everything. While I am in Sindh, I try to be like a sponge. I take in as much of that universe as I possibly can, so that I can bring it all back with me, and present it all again here in my blog, and tell the stories to anyone I meet. In these several quiet minutes, sitting cross-legged on the cool stone floor of the monument, I was not re-playing any specific episode in my mind, but simply inviting it all to sink in a bit deeper. And I was absorbing this new scene as well, the blanket of dimly glowing lights from this lovely small city below.
In my stillness I only gradually became aware of a rhythmic thumping sound coming from somewhere behind me, on the other side of the monument. I got up to see what it was. Around the corner I found my buddies watching a small boy with a double-skinned drum slung round his neck and long drumsticks in his hands. In that low half-light, the expressionless boy seemed to be some sort of apparition, gravely beating the two sides of his drum. My first impression was that he was all alone there, a ghost of the Gaddhi Bhit, though I think that in actuality he had some family nearby in the periphery. When he stopped playing, my buddies congratulated him and gave him a few rupees.
Khatau Jani was looking at his watch, and I heard my buddies saying something about “roshni” (light), though I wasn’t sure of the rest of what they had said.
“Soon the lights will come on in the city!” Naz explained to me, as we all turned our attention back out to the city view. That’s when I understood why the city streets had seemed so unusually dark to me while we were walking down below, and why the urban scene was only dimly glowing at this point. Of course there could be no other answer: load shedding. For those unfamiliar with Pakistan (and who haven’t read my other blog posts), load shedding is the result of the country’s dire electricity shortages. Most cities have to tolerate several hours per day without electricity, usually at fixed times so that you can anticipate the cut. During those hours, people have to fend for themselves, resorting to generators and large batteries. So, Mithi had been glowing dimly thus far because it was running on only auxiliary power. And now, just as Khatau predicted, all at once, the city doubled or tripled its brightness, as electricity was restored - and that dim city was dim no more.
This long and eventful day is beginning to draw to a close -- but not quite yet. My buddies had told me that Thar was not only famous for its food, but also for its music -- and I had been promised a performance. Very soon after we returned to the rest house, our singer and his accompanying musicians were ready for us.
The musicians set themselves up on a blanket on the floor of the large lobby of the rest house. It is typical of all traditional South Asian musicians to sit on the floor to perform, including the singers. The reasons for that performance posture probably extend back centuries and would be worthy of proper research, which I have not yet done. But I would conjecture that, in addition to practical concerns (not needing tables for the drums this way, for example), sitting on the floor emphasizes that the musicians are rendering a service, with all the humility that comes of serving. Western culture has moved towards placing its musicians on higher and higher pedestals--even though that may not be true to the spirit of the music itself. By contrast, a traditional South Asian musician assumes a posture of submission and reverence -- whether he be submitting to his esteemed audience or to his Saint or to his God -- or to all of the above at the same time. And that attitude of reverence is part of what makes Sufi music in particular so deeply affecting. In humbling himself before God, the Sufi musician somehow opens up a space in which all who listen can fall naturally into the same divine continuum--no matter what their own religious beliefs may be.
And that attitude of self-negation also goes a long way toward explaining why Sufi musicians tend to take on the word “Faqeer” into their own names. The archetypical Sufi faqeer is an ascetic and a spiritual seeker; someone who is not fed by worldly foods, but by the spirit alone. And music and poetry are part of his spiritual nourishment, which he shares with the wider world in exchange for small offerings into his beggar’s bowl.
For the modern Sindhi musician, the “Faqeer” status is more symbolic than literal. A young musician these days is not expected to cast off all worldly pleasures in exchange for his art--though perhaps some of them still do, to varying degrees. The title of “Faqeer” comes now more as a philosophical concept and a symbolic link to the traditions of the past. I think this is how our singer for that evening in Mithi, whose name is Rajab Faqeer, would probably describe it himself.
And our Rajab Faqeer is a young man with a round face and a trim mustache. He has a pleasant aspect from the moment you see him, but only when he begins to sing can you appreciate the full sunniness of his personality. His is a beautiful voice, which you can hear in the videos I’ve uploaded here. But I must apologize that the sound quality of my camera’s microphone does not do Rajab justice. You can get an idea of his voice, but only an idea--much of the sweetness and brightness of his tones is lost in the recording.
Rajab sang in several local and regional languages, though Sindhi is his own primary language. I recorded several of his songs, but sadly was not prepared quickly enough to catch his very first number, which proved to be my favorite of the night. It was a telling of the Punjabi romance “Heer-Ranjha” by the poet Bulleh Shah. I was only barely familiar with this story at the time, and certainly couldn’t decipher the words being sung. But Naz translated the essential lines for me even as they were unfolding, so that I could understand the sentiments that go with the melodies.
And these lines made quite an impression on me. The poet is using the voice of the heroine of the story, Heer, who is suffering in separation from her beloved Ranjha. And says:
But, as I mentioned, I sadly did not capture any video of that marvelous song. So I will instead share two others.
The first of these contains poetry by the Punjabi Sufi poet Sultan Bahoo as well as the Sindhi poet Aijaz Ali Shah Rashdi (though the language throughout, as best I can tell, is Hindi-Urdu). It asks,
(Credit to dear Naz for the info and translation above, which I have only re-stated in my own words -- hopefully without losing the meaning or mis-stating any facts.)
And the second comes from another beloved Sufi poet, Imam ul Din Dakhan, who had died only a week or two prior to this evening. It caught my ear especially because I had so recently been made aware of the poet, but also because it is a memorable tune, and because I am able to understand a refreshingly high proportion of the Urdu in this case (though by no means all of it). It is a song about the mystery and ineffability of the spirit:
And on that note of universal mystery -- I will close this second episode of my Thari travelogue…. But in the third episode, coming soon, we will finally see what desert villages look like in the harsher light of day.
And now I have finally been to the desert.
Only briefly, so far. Like all of my adventures in Pakistan thus far, my trip to the Thar desert in southern Sindh was a whirlwind -- fast and fleeting. Yet it created such a dense bundle of memories. Probably the best way for me to recount them is simply chronological. I will try my best.
1. Road trip
We started on the road from Hyderabad, where I was staying with the family of my best buddy Inam Sheikh. Inam himself decided he needed to stay home, for various reasons, but I felt no qualms about traveling alone with two other buddies, Naz Sahito and Irfan Ansari, who likewise treat me as their beloved little sister. It took some effort to convince Papa Saeed on the phone that he could entrust me to the care of these two gentlemen, but after interviewing both of them extensively, he gave his paternal consent.
And though we missed Inam’s presence on the journey, it would be hard to find two more pleasant traveling companions than Naz and Irfan. Both of them are experienced broadcasters, having attained senior positions in their fields, and yet they both radiate a childlike energy and delight that is absolutely infectious. Throughout my trips, Naz has been a keen guide for me, eagerly sharing cultural ideas with me, overflowing with information about the history and identity of Sindh. And Irfan has that kind of rare personality that can keep any gathering of friends in constant laughter. One short anecdote can illustrate this: One evening later in my trip, when I was sitting with Inam’s family over a quiet dinner, Inam answered his cell phone and started talking as usual. But soon he started laughing, and kept laughing, and pausing for a second and then laughing more. Inam’s youngest daughter and I were both soon bursting with giggles ourselves, even though we hadn’t heard any of what caused it. Meanwhile Inam kept doubling over with increased laughter while listening to his phone. I knew very quickly that the only person who could be on the other end of that phone line was Irfan Ansari.
So my journey was guaranteed to be a pleasant one. And my companions were further ideal for this trip because of their connections to the region. Irfan was recently appointed the station manager of Radio Mithi -- Mithi being the city toward which we were headed, which is something like a capital city to the region of Thar (in more official terms, it is the headquarter city of the Tharparkar District). So, these days Irfan is very accustomed to the four-hour commute between Hyderabad (where his family still lives) and Mithi, and was well-situated to host us at our destination. Naz too has strong ties to Thar, from his career in journalism. He recounted how he used to come to report on the difficult situations in that desert region a couple decades back, before there were even proper roads connecting the major towns. Back then, he told me, all travel was done on rough and dusty tracks. The only options were open jeeps and camel caravans. I can only imagine what it must have been like for my buddy to traverse that terrain -- in sizzling summer heat -- as a young reporter in the field.
Nowadays, due to much more recent development of the city of Mithi in particular, there is a very fine new road that runs between the city of Badin and the inner desert. And as for us travelers, we paused there in Badin at a gas station, because, having already been in the car for a couple of hours, we naturally started wanting some tea! And for my Sindhi friends, this is the most normal and routine thing in the world -- but I think that my American readers will share my delight at the quaint idea of drinking tea at a gas station. As we got out of the car, I heard one of my companions saying something like “kursiyoon rakho” -- bring chairs. After a moment, some plastic chairs and a small coffee table had been produced for us -- right there on the ground next to the gas pumps. And after a few minutes more, there was our tea -- genuine mixed milk tea, served properly with china cups and saucers. At this point my Sindhi readers will be wondering why on earth I have devoted a whole paragraph to such an ordinary activity -- but I do think it’s an important observation, because this ordinary activity is practically inconceivable in America, where consumer culture and frenzied schedules have left us with little option other than the profoundly unsociable drive-thru.
As we piled back into the car, the driver told my buddies (who then translated it for me) that I had been recognized. Apparently, someone working inside the gas station and noticed me, and had told the driver, “I know her! That is Miss Emily from Facebook.” This was again amazing to me -- and flattering for sure -- that I have become well enough known in Sindh that people who happen to see me are able to identify me. And how right this fellow was -- “Miss Emily from Facebook.” For what other place could more properly claim to be my permanent residence?
But now I shall delay no longer on the arrival into the desert. And it is not difficult to mark that arrival, because there is in fact a large gate positioned over the road that tells you in no uncertain terms that you have now, indeed, arrived at the desert. Of course, nature is not quite so obedient -- there is no magic line beyond which the coastal terrain turns suddenly into an expanse of sand. Much of Sindhi terrain has hints of desert anyway, even outside of Thar; and Thar itself not a land of enormous barren sand dunes like we might picture from Lawrence of Arabia. But there is still a noticeable and quick transition into the Thari landscape soon after passing through that arched gateway.
And how to describe the Thari landscape! Of course, it must look quite different, at different times of year… and I was visiting it at the mildest of times, long after the blistering summer had died down. The Thari sun in November is a purely welcoming sun. The breeze is soft and sweet. And yes, there is sand -- lots of sand -- as much as one could want in a desert. But there is also a strange fertility in this sand. I might have expected sweeping sand dunes of towering lifelessness -- but in fact it would have been hard to locate a patch of empty sand larger than a few meters. Because everywhere, interrupting the sandiness, there grow an array of bushy plants and trees of almost comical appearance. They don’t give the impression of a forest -- they do not merge to form a wood. Each one of these peculiar bushy plants stands on its own, like a prickly creature who is not a complete rebel, but likes to maintain his own space. Someday I will try to learn what all these strange plants actually were…. for now I am thinking of them simply as the prickly bushes of Thar.
After passing through the gate to Tharparkar, the drive rest of the drive to Mithi was only an hour or two. There is more desert beyond Mithi -- deeper desert, I am given to understand, where perhaps I would find some of those imagined towering sand dunes. But this journey did not extend past Mithi… which is where my traveling companions and I are arriving at this point of my story.
There is a dense urban center of Mithi, as there is in any long-established town. But at first I was not taken there, as we rode instead along wider, government-built roads and past walled structures of a more recent vintage. [Here I am recalling information from what I learned there, which may not be entirely accurate -- any reader who wishes to supply better information is welcome to let me know, and I will edit.] I believe that Mithi has become a favored place in very recent years, something akin to a resort town, and government structures and official protocols have been developing in the area, along with a variety of different rest houses and accommodations. Irfan’s radio station is located in these outskirts of the city, and so was the guest house where Naz and I were to spend the night (in separate rooms, needless to say).
2. Radio Mithi
But our first port of call was Irfan’s office at Radio Mithi. And I was quite amused to enter this space alongside my buddy Irfan, and see him in his official, leadership role. He sat down behind his large and empty desk, and almost immediately some staff person walked in with a stack of papers requiring his signature. As he examined them and applied the appropriate strokes of his pen, with a serious expression befitting a station boss, various others of his subordinates gathered around the office, waiting for his attention. Eventually, when all pressing business matters had been attended to, I told Irfan and the others that it was really quite amusing for me to see him for the first time in his Big Boss role. “Because generally,” I explained for the benefit of the others in the room, “ddingo chhokro aa!” (He’s a bit of a rascally boy.) And, hearing this, Irfan again burst into his characteristic laughter.
Around this time I learned that Mithi and Thar more broadly are famous for two things: food and music. The latter item would be demonstrated to me a little later on -- but it was already time to discover the first. I had not been expecting any elaborate spread for our lunch -- but actually, I should have been expecting it, because Sindhi meals in my experience are almost always elaborate, always consisting of more and more plates and dishes and flavors than I would have expected. Now, I must confess that I am not an avid food writer -- and although it was all delicious, I have little eagerness to go into detail about the marvelous interplay of spices, the different varieties of roti, the new twists on familiar curries that were suddenly spread before me. But I will mention my favorite part of it, a simple, paired delicacy that I have also enjoyed elsewhere in Sindh, and which will always have its own unique flavor wherever it comes from. This delightful pair of things is nothing other than butter and honey -- “makan’u maaki” as I learned to say in Sindhi. It was a fresh, rich, enticing butter (makan’u), and a honey (maaki) of indescribable depths. I am sure that I could never grow tired of the makan’u-maaki of Thar, even if I were given it every day.
Naz and Irfan were also enjoying their meal with typical gusto and appreciation, even though this sort of elaborate spread is not at all unusual to them. Naz seemed particularly pleased that I was also eating with relative gusto, and conveyed my compliments to Irfan’s chef, Mustafa. I mention his name now, because he will reappear a bit later in this story. Mustafa seemed pleased and urged forward to make sure that I had gotten as much of everything as I could possibly want.
Ah, one other thing about this meal is worthy of note, which is that its curries contained a lot of meat. In itself that is not notable at all -- Pakistanis are mostly Muslims, and mostly meat-eaters, and that suits my own tastes as well. But Mithi is unlike other Pakistani towns, in that Muslims are not in the majority, but rather significantly in the minority. According to one statistic I read, Mithi’s population is 80% Hindu. So when Irfan invited his engineer, Dileep Aamer, to have some lunch, Dileep at first shrugged and gestured to the meat, and said he couldn’t. Fortunately there were a few dishes on the table that were meatless (some daal and some rice, and of course the makan’u - maaki), so he did find enough to eat after all.
The religious demographics are not all that distinguishes Thar from the rest of Sindh. In many ways it feels like a completely different province--so different, in fact, that many Thari people do not think of themselves as Sindhi at all. The local language is not Sindhi, but rather Dhatki -- and although Dhatki belongs to the same enormous category of Indo-Aryan languages that also includes Sindhi, I think there is enough difference between them that they are not mutually comprehensible. So, although Sindhi is widely spoken within the boundaries of Mithi, it becomes quickly less familiar in the outer desert communities, where the language is Dhatki and the lifestyle is Rajasthani. Culturally, the Thar desert is continuous with the Indian region of Rajasthan -- the border of Pakistan and India having been placed in the middle of this territory only recently in history.
These were all things that I was learning from Naz, Irfan, and now also Dileep, as we finished up our meal.
Before we set out again, Irfan gave me a tour of the radio station. My readers may not know that I also have worked briefly in radio, for a few of years (though very much part-time) serving as a production assistant for a live radio program at WHYY-FM, Philadelphia’s public broadcasting station. So I was particularly interested to see how Irfan’s station operations compared to what I was used to. I don’t think that Irfan will mind my saying that it is a rather humble building: only one studio and control booth on one side of the complex and simple hallway with a few offices on the other side, connected by a small and sun-soaked exterior courtyard. But despite its tininess, Radio Mithi does contain all the life and spark that is necessary to keep a broadcasting station vibrant. We met one of Irfan’s news reporters (or perhaps there is only one of them?) as we passed by the tiny room marked “News Section.” In the technical part of the building, I was shown the transmitter room, which contains only a few boxy-looking machines, and yet is responsible for keeping that radio signal alive and well. Next to that was the control booth, containing an old-fashioned fader board (but I must note that old-fashioned is not a bad thing when it comes to audio technology, because in many cases audio devices used to be made far more solidly and elegantly than they are today) as well as a computer interface for airing content that isn’t being immediately produced in the neighboring studio.
On the other side of the glass, in the aforementioned studio, a young man was reading in Dhatki from a script in front of him. I must admit that I have absolutely no idea what the content of this program was--presumably some information of local interest, though I believe poetry was also involved. I can say that the young man displayed admirable focus on his task, because he must have been surprised to see his station director appear on the other side of the glass along with a host of others (for a group of people had gathered along with us, as always happens when I am shown around any facility), including an obviously foreign female. A look of nervousness did appear in his eyes, but you would not have been able to hear it in his voice as he continued his narration. After a moment, Dileep signalled him to stop, and used the computer interface to switch the program to some music (which is probably also a very typical part of this broadcast), and we all barged in on the poor radio announcer in his studio, and took the photos that you see here. As we left, I told the announcer that he was doing a very good job -- though I don’t know if he could understand me.
Because of my previous job, I’ve spent a lot of time in radio control booths, and radio listening (in the form of the BBC) is still an extremely important part of my life, so I was interested to compare what I found in Mithi to what I’ve known before. My former workplace, although desperately underfunded by American standards (because our public broadcasting is funding in the majority by free will donations from its small listenership), nonetheless had a beautifully renovated building, full of what now seems to me to have been very shiny new equipment. The equipment available at Radio Mithi is, by comparison, extremely minimal. However, the population of Mithi is also minute in comparison to Philadelphia, so any comparison of the two radio stations is difficult to achieve meaningfully. It would not be as difficult, however, to compare the roles and effectiveness of the two countries’ public broadcasting systems on the whole -- and I am tempted to start doing that here -- but I sense that my readers might be quite eager at this point to get on to the more picturesque aspects of this Thari voyage, which are still to come, in great abundance. So for now I will simply say that it seems to me that Radio Pakistan on the whole, despite a lack of up-to-date resources, is nonetheless a varied and integral part of the broadcasting life of the country, and that it is more appreciated and far more alive than its American counterpart. It is also more essential in Pakistan, a country in which dozens of languages are spoken by regional communities, and in which the nation’s official languages (Urdu and English) cannot be expected to communicate deeply with the entire population. Programs at Radio Mithi go out in both Sindhi and Dhatki (though perhaps some programs are carried from higher-up station affiliates in Urdu). In a country that is so linguistically diverse, surely radio must be a crucial way of keeping citizens connected, in a way that Americans can hardly fathom.
But now I shall speed up the tape a little so that we can finally get outside and into the desert. Our next destination was actually our guest house, where I was given quite a large and elegant room to myself. Naz took the room next to it (and only later did I see how much smaller his room was), wanting to make sure that I felt safe, with someone I knew close at hand at all times. After the requisite settling into these rooms, and of course, some tea (served out in the lobby area), the afternoon had already advanced considerably. It was past four o’clock, and the sun was falling low in the sky. Seeing this, I got a bit panicky, knowing that there was very little time left for good photography before night would fall. So I urged my buddies back into our vehicle so we could head towards what I most wanted to see: a true Thari village.
3 - Dry Venice, and a City made of Pottery
On our way to this village, however, I also got my only decent glimpse of the inner city of Mithi. And I wish I had had time to take photographs (at the time I didn’t want to waste the sunlight, so didn’t ask to stop the car), because it is fascinating to look at. Though buildings seemed to be made of similar materials and on similar patterns to others that I have known in Pakistan, they all seemed to be a bit smaller and a bit more delicate, a bit more ornate, more intricately interwoven with one another. The impression I got was something similar to Venice -- a city which is certainly a part of Italy and yet feels at a deep level intensely different; more luxurious without being richer, more ornate without being more ostentatious, and somehow possessing a very different imagination from its wider context. My companions were surprised at my naming of Mithi as the “Dry Venice,” but I think that they were nonetheless convinced by it when I explained.
At one point, in one of these dusty and decorative streets, the car stopped for just long enough to allow another gentleman to climb into the back seat of our car, where Irfan and Naz were already sitting. This was Khatau Jani, a new face and name for me, but an old friend of both my traveling buddies, a fellow journalist and a native of Mithi. He is a pleasant, quiet fellow with curly hair and a slim physique, and he became my third traveling buddy for the rest of this short trip. Khatau had arranged for someone belonging to one of the local villages to guide us out of the city, which I only realized as I noticed that we had begun following this person on his motorcycle. And the process of actually reaching the village was prolonged yet more because our motorcyclist was also having difficulty getting his vehicle to move.
By the time we reached this village, the sun had just fully set, so my entire visit to this extraordinary place was colored in the strange shades of twilight. The low light levels made photography a bit difficult, but the experience was magical. Though I cannot ignore the extreme poverty of the people who live in these villages -- their lives are full of harsh realities that are obscured by the gentle mistiness of this twilight -- I also feel called to celebrate the beauty of these people and their surroundings and their simple way of life. Because what I saw in this brief visit was so beautiful as scarcely to be believed.
The village seems to grow organically out of its peculiar terrain, which is a sloping hillside of sand dune, dotted with those same comical bushy plants as I mentioned earlier. At this time of evening, sky and sand merge into the same color, and there seems to be no clear border between the grainy, unsolid ground and the dust-clouded sky. Shadows also are gentle and nebulous, having no edge or form. And on this blurry canvas arises a series of walls and huts and courtyards that seems to have come out of a fairy tale. The phrase “mud hut” might accurately describe these houses on one level, but those dull-sounding words do not convey the fineness of the structures. They do not seem to me to be “mud” but rather pottery. The village seems sculpted of a soft sandy clay; all edges are smoothed and rounded by the atmosphere, and yet all the architectural lines are clean and pure. The mud-village and the sand and the sky are all one single color and entity, varying only in degrees of solidity and contour.
And on top of that mesmerizingly colorless structure is laid so much color -- in the form of rillies (traditional quilts) lying on wooden cots in the courtyards and in the colors of the women’s dresses and long veils, which they typically hold up in such a way as to hide their faces completely from view. And the other source of color are the fabled peacocks, which run and dance in the wild here, and in great numbers. Who can describe the sight of a peacock strolling through its native land with such confidence? My camera has failed to do it justice, and my words will fail as well.
But the women who walk through the villages of Thar are just as beautiful as the peacocks, and just as colorful. I actually give credit to these women for inspiring me to learn about Sindh in the very beginning -- they are in some ways the reason that my whole adventure began. (Explanation for that can be seen HERE.) The Thari women have a rare kind of beauty, a royal and elegant quality that comes not from wealth or status, but somehow radiates from their inner humanity. They have a strength and a worldliness in their bearing, and a feminine grace that refuses to be dimmed by the harshness of their deprivation. They wear long dresses of the brightest colors, and long veils that often descend to their ankles. The dresses are often sleeveless, but their arms are never bare: they are instead covered by thick white bangles. Modesty is extremely important to these women, who rarely show their faces -- a rule which applies not only to strangers but even to men in their near-immediate family. It was explained to me at one point, for example, that the reason a particular woman was holding her veil over her face with left hand was that her father-in-law was presently standing somewhere to her left, and even he was not supposed to see her. Similarly, passing women typically covered their faces even from my view.
But I was never made to feel alien among these beautiful people. The villagers welcomed us warmly as their guests, and if I seemed a strange creature to them, they certainly didn’t reveal it. I was delighted to be invited into one of the huts, the domain of the young wife of a man who was speaking with my travel buddies. This woman gestured for me to come in and sit down, first spreading a thick quilt for me to sit on. And she was one of these fine Thari beauties that I had long expected -- a pure and natural radiance veiled in deep colors. I am grateful that she allowed me to take her photograph. She was hesitant in this, but when her husband gave permission, she allowed me a quick smile to catch her beauty and share it in this gentle way with you all.
She and I couldn’t speak a word together -- a Dhatki speaker, she couldn’t understand my still-terrible Sindhi. So I spent these few moments simply in observation, trying to absorb my surroundings and imagine what her life must be like. The hut was maybe fifteen feet in diameter, with very little inside except for cooking pots and a rustic stove, on which something or other was simmering.
There was a basket of fruits there which seem to be a local delicacy -- I can’t name them -- but can recognize them now by their faintly putrid smell. And there was a pile of mats for sitting, and little else. After a minute or two, an older woman, probably the mother of the young wife, came in and tended to the stove. But despite this fascinating glimpse inside the home, I am still largely at a loss to imagine what the rest of their lives must look like.
When I re-emerged from the hut, I found my buddies talking with a large group of men gathered in the courtyard around a large quilt that had been laid on the ground. “Come, sit sit!” Naz called to me, and pointed to the quilt. The men all moved a few steps away from it, keeping a respectable distance as I took off my shoes and folded my legs into a sitting position there, not sure what was going to happen.
“They would like to offer you peacock feathers!” Naz explained. And sure enough, there was a man holding a large bundle of those bright feathers, fanning out in all directions like a full tail of the peacock itself. And he proceeded to hand me the entire bundle. I handed my camera to Irfan so that he could take pictures of the beautiful gift. We didn’t actually take all of them with us, but only a small handful -- and what happened to that handful, I’m afraid I do not know. As a result, it feels a bit like these feathers might not even exist outside of that village -- like objects in fantasy stories that instantly vanish when you take them away from their enchanted place of origin, the only place they belong. The feathers were real enough -- I held them softly against my face -- but only there in Thar.
It was too short a visit to take in even a small fraction of what was going on around me in that village, though I kept my camera in hand to catch details that my eyes could not notice. Children gathered around, which is always one of my favorite parts of village visits in Sindh -- the children always follow their curiosity and stay as near to me as they can. My photos reveal to me that there were a couple of children in particular who stayed close by, like small curious angels -- a gentle-looking boy in an olive-colored shalwar and a girl with a quizzical expression and a lime-green veil. If I ever get a chance to return, I'll try to find them and ask their names.
Evening was growing darker, and soon we were again on our way…. I will stop my narrative here for the moment, but soon will follow up with Part 2, in which there is much more to come…. Mithi at night, sung prayers in a Hindu temple, a different village in the light of day…. for now, wari milandaseen, dosto.
complete photo gallery for Thar: Part 1 ....
“SWEET EM! YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE,” said Papa Saeed into the phone. I was still in Hyderabad, scurrying to get myself put together to go on the day’s field trip. I had just told Papa that Inam and buddies would be taking me to see Makli and Thatta, which are neighboring towns about two hours southwest of Hyderabad. “YOU WILL BE AMAZED AT THE HISTORIC SITES. YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE MAKLI. TAKE MANY PHOTOGRAPHS, SWEET EM.”
This was the second full day of my second trip to Sindh. My previous two blog entries describe most of the first day -- my welcome in Hyderabad by my dear friend Inam Sheikh and his family, the assembling of buddies, our visits to sites within the city of Hyderabad -- but even they do not describe all that had already happened since my arrival. On that first night, for example, I was honored with a gathering of extraordinary Sindhis who met me for dinner at the Hyderabad Gymkhanna, organized by the prominent intellectuals--whom I am proud to call my friends--Jami Chandio and Sahar Gul (who is Jami’s wife, but also a highly respected academic in her own right). Jami and Sahar had gathered a room full of Sindhi luminaries to meet me--men and women in equal number--writers, anthropologists, psychologists, activists, journalists, and others, including my dear adi (sister) Shagufta Shah, who had also greeted Andrew and me on our first day in Sindh on the previous trip. I wish I had recorded the proceedings as these guests introduced themselves to me one by one around the room. Rarely have I been in such thoroughly distinguished company -- each one of them far more accomplished than I.
Each day I spent in Sindh seems to have been stuffed with several lifetimes’ worth of experiences, which expand across many pages when I try to unravel them for this blog. But now I shall move on to that second day of the second trip. After having breakfast with Inam’s wife and daughters, who are themselves so charming that I could have happily spent the whole morning chatting with them, Inam told me that a few of our buddies from the previous day had again gathered and were ready to depart. I think there were five of us -- Naranjan, Rafiq Chandio, Mohammad Khoso, Inam, and myself, plus a guard and maybe another driver, and we would be joined by several more buddies in the afternoon at Thatta.
We left Inam’s house in two cars, and for the first leg of the journey, and conversation was lively, such that I almost didn’t notice when we suddenly stopped in an unusual expanse of desert-like terrain. And I am not entirely sure what this place was. I think it was an enormous burial ground--it certainly looked like that--but it looked to me like something from another planet, with its strangely arranged jagged stones, organized and yet seemingly organic, like the stones had arranged themselves there on their own. The whole place been both immensely eroded by the sands and winds of time, as well as oddly compacted onto itself, its obelisks and memorials all gathering closer and closer to one another like a contracting galaxy of stars. If this place was explained to me at the time, I can’t recall the story -- perhaps Inam can fill us in on this, if he reads this blog entry. Or perhaps it is more charming to remember it as a mysterious alien graveyard.
But that was only a quick stop on the way--it was not the main destination. After the requisite photo-taking, we buddies re-shuffled our car arrangement and continued on toward Makli. This place towards which we were headed was also a graveyard, and also a ruin, but something on a very different scale from this first wasteland. Inam did try to explain to me, in vague terms, what we were going to see. But I suspect I still had little concept of what it was until we actually arrived at the Makli Necropolis.
True to its name, this is not merely a graveyard, but a “city of the dead” (necro+polis), and one of the largest of these in the world. It is a silent city, consisting of miles of tombs and monuments erected in the memory of countless rulers and nobles and saints of Sindh. By some estimates there are as many as half a million graves, though of course not all of them are grand mausoleums. Nonetheless, there are many mausoleums, grand and grander, old and older, in varying states of erosion under the Sindhi sun.
Researching the site after the fact, I found this little gem of a paragraph in a BBC travelogue, which I think bears sharing here:
There is still something ecstatic in the air in Makli, though it is a diffuse kind of ecstasy, spreading itself across the vastness of this airy, sandy space. To drive around the Makli necropolis is a strange thing. It is something like driving around a ghost town, but the bright sun against the arid landscape (at least for visitors at midday) inoculates the place against any feeling of spookiness. Like most historical sites in Sindh, there has been only minimal work done to restore and preserve the Necropolis for future visitors, and only a few of the mausoleums we saw were marked with explanatory signs. What signs there were tended to be crumbling and difficult to read, especially for me, with my limited Urdu abilities further slowed down by the need to decipher half-vanished characters. (Memory may serve me wrong, but I think the signs were more frequently in Urdu than Sindhi.)
Fortunately for me, Inam and my other buddies were able to identify many of them for me. There was, for example, the tomb of the sultan Jam Nizamuddin II, with its elaborately scrolled facade. I couldn’t help but feel I was entering a temple or a holy place, but was reassured by my buddies that because this man was a king and not a saint, it wasn’t necessary to treat the tomb as a shrine. Thus it wasn’t so essential to remove shoes and keep my head covered--though the pictures will affirm that I did that second part anyway. At the even more palatial tomb of Essa Khan Tarkhan, however, I allowed the dupatta to slip from my head as I wandered in and out of the shadows on those beautiful verandas.
I will allow the photographs to tell the story of Essa Khan Tarkhan (see the slideshow below), but I want to linger a moment in the vicinity of the tomb of Jam Nizamuddin for a moment longer here. Neighboring that stately mausoleum were many others in partial or complete ruin. There was a gazebo looking out onto the desert expanse in one direction, and toward the gleaming whiteness of a distant mosque in another direction. There was a structure with four tall but crumbling walls, in which some hardy leafless trees had taken up residence, stretching their wooden arms out the open windows. Down the dusty drive was a low-lying, fort-like structure, and on and on in the distance were more tombs. Scattered variously were a few defiantly erect but inscrutable stones, once signifiers of something, someone.
And just a little farther in the distance, at a remove from the road on which we few visitors travel, a breezy flutter of motion caught my eye. It was the flapping of worn cloth at the edges of the tent-like cabins set up by nomadic people who live here. I could see a little settlement, ringed with a fence made of rough, interlacing branches of desert trees. A couple of billows of smoke rising from makeshift stoves ensured that this was an active homestead, and not a ghost town. So there is in fact life, human life, here in this City of the Dead. It is a far cry from the kind of life hinted by the elegant mausoleums of the past kings and nobles -- destitute, colorless, lacking any hint of luxury. The only thing that these settlements appeared to have in common with the royal mausoleums is their complete estrangement from the advancement of the modern world.
As we rolled back across the gravelly roads, Inam told me that we were going to see a special shrine before leaving Makli. “There is a legend,” he told me, “about the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ashabi. They say that there is one minute in the day during which any wish that you make will be granted. So you will go in and make a wish.”
I raised my eyebrows in amusement and intrigue, and a broad grin spread across Inam’s face. “Who knows!” he said impishly. “Hahaha…..Maybe you will land on the right minute.”
The shrine of Abdullah Shah Ashabi is so unlike the other parts of the Necropolis that we had seen that it is hard to believe, in retrospect, that it is part of the same larger structure. I had to check on Google maps to make sure that memory wasn’t deceiving me. Where the other tombs and monuments tended to be of unpainted stone, ornate but austere, this shrine was a bright starburst of carnival colors, particularly a dark lime-green, against which white trimming pops out to greet the eye. Here also there is flapping cloth -- not rags and tatters, but crisp-edged flags and banners in all colors. We entered through a gateway that was closely lined with vendors of sweets and trinkets. The sudden swirl of colors and people distracted me such that I almost passed right by the place where we were supposed to deposit our shoes. Our guard called to me with gentle urgency, “Mem!” and pointed to the rows of empty shoes, and I added mine to the ranks.
Inam was looking at his watch. Time was getting away from us, and there was still a lot that he wanted for us to see before the day was done. But he was still intent that I get my chance at wish-making in this special shrine. We approached its entrance and peered inside to where the shrine lies behind a metal grille. Several womenfolk were waiting outside, and I soon realized that this was because women were not allowed inside. As Inam made a gesture to tell me, ‘go! go on inside,’ someone approached him to remind him of the no-women rule. I wouldn’t have argued the point -- preferring to bow to local customs -- but Inam came to my defense. “She is a foreigner,” he was saying. “It’s okay, she’ll just step inside.”
Thus buttressed by my friend’s support, I first made eye contact with the concerned man to try to express my innocent intentions, and then followed Inam’s gesture and ducked inside the shrine. I went inside and acknowledged the saint, and after a moment I scurried back outside to where Inam was waiting. “Did you make your wish?” he asked. I nodded. He didn’t ask what the wish had been -- and it seems to me that, in solidarity with the saint, I should not reveal it.
That small mission accomplished, we left swiftly so that we could see one more historic site before our mid-afternoon lunch at Keenjhar lake. For this we left Makli for the neighboring town of Thatta, which I gather is a separate town from Makli, but also is the name of the district, so all of these sites can be thought of as being within Thatta in a sense.
Anyway, this next site is particularly dear to my heart, because it is the first actual exemplum of Mughal architecture that I have visited in person, having all my life been enchanted by that style (knowing, as any Westerner does, the beautiful curves of the Taj Mahal, if nothing else). The Shah Jahan Mosque in Thatta is not as opulent as other Mughal-era mosques or palaces, but it still its lines fall into those graceful geometries that seem to have been the secret wisdom of the Mughals alone. And this mosque bears the name of the same Mughal Emperor who famously commissioned the great Taj itself. Shah Jahan (1592 - 1666) is not the most admirable of the Mughals in terms of his politics or humanitarianism--but this short blog entry is not the place to delve into his biography (perhaps another time!). Suffice it to say here that he has a complicated legacy, but is nonetheless the imperial force behind some of the greatest architecture of our world. And one small piece of that architectural legacy happens to lie in my own beloved Sindh. Apparently, Shah Jahan built the mosque as a gift to the people of Thatta for having sheltered him during a period of exile before his reign (according to this useful article). And it is unique, to my knowledge, in combining that Mughal grace with the warmth of local Sindhi craftsmanship. The angled corridors are built of red bricks and the domes and arches are inlaid with colored tiles that likely come from Hala, Sindh’s home of decorative arts.
Again I had only a few minutes to try to capture this beautiful place in my lens and in my memory. But I recall the sense of quiet and coolness -- having arrived at a time in between prayers, with only a few visitors and worshippers sharing the space in wordless calm.
By this time it seemed that most of my buddies had tired of sightseeing, or were feeling compelled to answer the call of duty on various phones and smart devices--it was a working day for most people, after all. Inam had been staunchly guiding me through these sites as the others gradually dispersed to shady corners to tend to their business.
But now the group reassembled in its fullness for our lakeside lunch -- in fact, in greater fullness than before, because several friends who had not been with us at Makli were waiting already for us when we reached Keenjhar. A bright circle of buddies was waiting for us there, including dear Naz Sahito and Jami Chandio, who had not been along for the earlier part of the day. And beyond that several more smiling faces, whom I could not identify.
At this part in the day, as so often happens in these tales I recount to you readers of my blog, I was becoming quite sleepy, still not remotely over the jetlag of the plane journey (just two days earlier), and quite apart from that I would have been a bit tired anyway from a day packed with sightseeing. I rather enjoy the way that sleepiness blurs my memories of this part of the day, though, putting a bright haze on top of everything. We all sat there at the lakeside, a large ring of buddies in white plastic chairs, and tea was brought to us… that must have been after our lunch, but I can’t recall exactly. I do recall allowing my eyes to droop a bit as I listened to the chattering of my friends with one another, almost entirely in Sindhi. The more I listened, the more I could understand, though I was (and am) still quite a long way from a true grasp of the language. But on a sleepy afternoon like this, I was content to let those gentle sounds wash over me like the murmurings of the lake itself. It is a very rounded and gentle language, extremely subtle in its consonants, never jarring or jagged. So I was happy to relax a bit, as much as my little plastic chair would allow, and listen to the light banter of my friends.
Whenever I would open my eyes, I would be met with that bright shining of the lake itself, which at mid-afternoon can be almost overwhelming. Until my sensitive eyes readjusted, it felt like Keenjhar Lake was filled with only gleaming white light instead of water.
After this short respite we soon piled back into our cars to drive back to Hyderabad, where another event was planned for the evening -- a concert of traditional Sindhi music arranged for me at the radio station, where several of our buddies work. I will try to make that--and the wonderful topic of Sindhi music more broadly--the subject of my next blog entry.
But though on that day we swiftly left the lakeside long before the sun began to set, I will linger at Keenjhar a little longer in my writing here, to end this chapter of my travelogue. At one point as we were all sitting there in that circle, I do recall asking my friends to tell me more about the stories of this fabled lake. And when telling the story they began to glow as well, perhaps because the historic legend that accompanies this lake is the only one of the great love stories in Shah Latif’s account that does not end in tragedy. Most of Latif’s legendary Sindhi queens are fated to be separated from their beloveds, sometimes losing their lives in trying to reunite with them.
But Noori from Keenjhar was blessed with a gentler fortune. She also was not born a queen: she was a simple fisherwoman, but she was known among the locals for her grace, and she was called Noori (divine light) because she was radiant like the full moon. Still, she never expected that she might catch the attention of a King. But on one fateful day she was sighted by Jam Tamachi, a King of the Samma dynasty, and he instantly fell in love with her. Strengthened by that love, he liberated himself from societal rules concerning rank and station, and he made Noori a Queen above all other queens. Thus elevated, however, Noori never forgot her origins, and never wished to ornament herself in luxury. Her humility drew Jam Tamachi even closer into their love. Thus the story of Noori and Jam Tamachi has become a symbol of spiritual union, a transcendent marriage of souls.
Noori is believed to be buried, upon her wish, in Keenjhar lake -- and perhaps that is the reason for its unusual glow.
Below: more photos from Makli and Thatta. Many are the same as the above, but there are extras as well.
I took all the photos except for the ones of me, which were taken (quite expertly) by dear Inam.
Though general excitement prevented me from sleeping soundly for those few hours (see previous blog entry for context), I was very comfortable in the guest room of Inam’s house, which is an airy space with high ceilings and a door out onto a balcony. And the February breeze was warm and pleasant. When I had left the US from New York City, the winter had been at its most frigid, with a biting wind and temperatures significantly below freezing. Only now, as I write this blog post in early May, is the weather here in the US starting to rival that wonderful Hyderabad February. (Meanwhile my friends in Sindh are now all sweltering….sorry, dear ones.)
When eventually I mustered the energy to get myself up, I heard a knock on the door. I was greeted by Inam’s two elder daughters, Priya and Aroma, who had brought me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice on a small tray. I invited them in and they chatted with me while I drank it. I had not previously met either one of them, but, as so often happens in Sindh, I quickly began to feel that they were my own younger sisters or nieces. Both of these young women impressed me greatly, and are worthy of more comment, but if I get into that I might risk not ever reaching my intended destination of description, which is the Mir tombs. So, suffice it to say that Priya and Aroma and the juice they brought gave me just the energy I needed to start myself up again in this new time zone.
While I rested, Inam had been making arrangements for our day--or perhaps the arrangements made themselves, as they always seem to do in Sindh, where friends appear out of the woodwork, and food always materializes in vast quantities too, and there is always some place to go and something to see and some music to be sung. (Of course it takes a lot of work to create such a hospitable environment, but to the guest it feels seamless and effortless, because it is done so gracefully.) Thus it was today also. Soon after I had gotten myself up, Inam’s friends started arriving to greet me and one another. This is a group of Inam’s colleagues from various fields, intellectuals in various subjects and trades, all roughly Inam’s age, which is to say about almost a generation older than myself. But a difference in age is immaterial among buddies -- which is what these gentlemen all became to me, and what I always call them as well, my dear buddies. Being in their company was easy and natural. And although I was often the only female in the room, they never caused me even the slightest unease. I was a welcome buddy among buddies, loved and respected as a member of the Sindhi family.
And it was indeed a charming group that assembled there in Inam’s living room, each individual with his own stories, though I barely scratched the surface in my short time there. There was of course dear Naz Sahito, whom I had met during my previous trip--a television journalist and smiling, sunny personality whom I consider one of my core buddies. The others I was meeting for the first time, forming first impressions--the gentle and graceful Naseer Mirza, kind-hearted Irfan, the austere intellectual Naranjan, the mischievous Rafiq, the quiet Mohammed, levelheaded Ishtiaq, and several others, who, in various combinations, would be my traveling companions for the next two days and again when I returned to Hyderabad at the end of this trip. Groups of friends, at least in the vicinity of Inam, seem to have a certain natural cohesiveness. Rarely does a day go by, he told me, that these friends do not find time to see one another in some form or other.
Once we were all well fed on Sindhi fish and daal and lotus roots, the buddies dispersed, to be re-assembled again later. Only Ishtiaq Ansari remained with us for our first ventures into Hyderabad and its environs. Our first stops were actually in and around Jamshoro, a place well known to most Sindhis for its university. We went down to the Indus in the glare of the mid-afternoon sun and walked on its cracked shores, near groups of grazing buffaloes. And we visited the institute of Sindhology, passing through the thatched blue shadows of palm trees in its courtyard.
Those places deserve more attention from me as well, and further visiting. But on this particular afternoon, I got only fleeting glimpses of them. Soon we were motoring back into the city, to the neighborhood of Hirabad, where we would find the tombs of the Talpur Mirs.
And I will do my best to offer just a little bit of history here, in few words, for the uninitiated. “Talpur” is the name of the dynasty that reigned in Sindh from 1783 to 1843, while the word “Mir” (related to “emir”) indicates their position of power. Their principal emir at the time when they came to power, having defeated the previous Kalhora rulers, was Mir Fateh Ali Khan (Talpur). He chose Hyderabad as his seat of power and reigned from there with three of his brothers. Two other brothers were established in other cities of Sindh, namely Mirpurkhas and Khairpur. (On my previous trip, I had the unusual good fortune to meet a surviving prince of Khairpur’s Talpur dynasty--but that is a story for another day.) Mir Fateh Ali Khan ruled until his death in 1801, and then power passed to his brother Mir Ghulam Ali Khan, and then upon the latter’s death in 1811 to another brother, Mir Karam Ali Khan. It was for him that the tombs were built (beginning in 1812), and he lies buried there. The Talpurs continued to reign in Sindh, despite internal family rifts and other difficulties, until the British East India Company forced them out, defeating them at the Battle of Miani in 1843.
Incidentally, that notorious battle was waged on February 17, the same day as my visit to the Tombs.
So, the Mir Tombs only a little more than 200 years old -- which may not seem like much in archaeological time, but these tumultuous two centuries have worn heavily on the tombs, as they have on all of our Sindh. It has been a constant refrain of my travels in Sindh -- a lament for the disintegrating monuments of the province, with great wailing and gnashing of teeth concerning the lack of care that the government has given to the heritage sites of Sindh. Though beloved of the people of Sindh, who look to these places with great pride and interest, most historical sites in Sindh are indeed very minimally looked after. Even Moen-jo-Daro, whose ancient ruins are some of the world’s most significant, has fairly minimal oversight from a small staff. Other sites are completely unattended. The magnificent ramparts of Kot Digi, for example, stand without any of the usual trappings of historic tourist attractions. Its visitors enter through a spiked doorway that stands open in this otherwise impenetrable fortification, without encountering even as much resistance as would be offered by a free-will donation box.
But the Mir Tombs are now an exception to that rule of neglect and decay. This is the particular project of our buddy Ishtiaq Ansari, who has been leading a team of workers and engineers to restore the site to its former glory. They began the restoration in April of 2012 and are currently in the last days of work, expecting to be complete before this very month is over (May 2015). I was fortunate enough to visit (on 17 February 2015) at a time when the work was still under way, so that I could see some of it unfolding before my eyes. And this was no slapdash bandaid repair job, of the kind that I am told many other “restored” sites have been been given. Ishtiaq and his team have approached the site with loving attention to all of its details -- and what intricate and ornate details they are.
I’m not sure whether I realized where we were going before we arrived at the site of the tombs -- having entrusted my schedule completely to Inam, I was simply enjoying being ferried about from place to place. But once we arrived, I realized that I was already quite familiar with this site, as seen through the eyes of my friend Jani Abro, whose novel I have been editing for the last several months. Jani himself is from Hyderabad (and a close friend of Inam’s, incidentally), though he has been living in the US, not so far from where I live, for the past couple of decades. And although I have promised not to give away any of his plot until after the novel gets published, I think it is safe to say that his descriptions of his homeland (not just Hyderabad but many parts of Sindh) are vivid and profoundly accurate. If I could have a rupee for every time I exclaimed “I know this already from Jani’s novel!!” during my travels in Sindh, I would be a rich woman. Well, maybe not, but at least I would have a few hundred rupees.
And those Sindhi things that would cause me to invoke Jani’s name were not always specific places -- it might as easily be a gesture, or a tree, or a custom, or a greeting, or even a smell, which would prompt me to cry out, “it’s in Jani’s book!” But in this case it was indeed a place, because one of Jani’s protagonists walks across Hyderabad to these very tombs and observes them in detail, in the state of deep decay that was their reality until Ishtiaq and his team stepped in. So as I entered through the arched gateway, I realized I was already familiar with this place. But these were no longer the crumbling ruins of Jani’s book--although the unfinished corridors give attest to the authenticity of Jani’s descriptions. The undecorated parts of the walls are now a glistening and solid white, where once they were a crumbling orange. And the decorated parts--which are the majority--tiled and carved and painted, are fresh and crisp and bright, where previously they had looked almost as if their brilliant colors had been scrubbed out by some malicious titan wielding a block of steel wool.
Just as interesting to me as the elegant structures, though, was the process of restoration itself, which was unfolding before me. As we entered and stood before the main facade, my eyes quickly drifted to the left, which at first resembled something like a quarry. But it wasn’t stones being excavated here -- instead it was filled with piles of earthenware tiles, many of them painted already, stacked up and ready to be paved into their proper places in the jigsaw puzzle of the mosaic. Each tile was being meticulously prepared to replace its historic predecessor, using identical designs and materials. Artisans had been brought in from the not-too-distant city of Hala, which is renowned in Sindh for the quality of its arts and crafts, as well as Nasarpur, where there is also a surviving tile center. There was a kiln here on the site for firing the new tiles, and each one of these thousands of little artworks was created and painted here by hand. The field of tiles-in-progress was something beautiful in itself, like a collection of especially elegant building blocks, colorful toys for some giant infant prince. Busy workmen peeped out at me from behind these painted stacks as I snapped photos in their direction.
Inside the tombs, other workmen were diligently engaged in the dusty work of mortars and plasters. In the shade offered by one of these interiors, sitting on the floor right next to the tombs themselves, were two workers wearing shawl-turbans and holding long sticks, obscured slightly to the eye by a white dust-cloud of their own making. They were using their sticks to beat chunks of charred chiroli (a gypsum-like material, I am told) into a smaller and more manageable chunks.
In a second tomb interior, another seated workman was grinding these smaller chunks of chiroli into a powder, which would in turn be mixed into a mortar. Another worker in this room was sitting with a pile of jute fibers laid out in front of him, which he was beating with a pair of sticks to thin them out, for use in a binding plaster. All of these, as was explained to me, are the traditional Sindhi building methods, which have been preserved over centuries.
Some of these interiors also needed to be repainted. I recalled something about the fading frescoes inside the tombs from Jani’s novel. But now I could see them before my own eyes, and indeed, what little of the paint that time and entropy had left on the walls was faded and chipped and indistinct. But careful attention had been paid to those still-visible sections, and skilled eyes had plotted out exactly what needed to be reinstated on the walls. This also was being done entirely by hand, with small paintbrushes requiring extremely delicate control. It had been difficult, I was told, to find someone capable of the task, but ultimately they had found a young man from Hala who was gifted enough to be entrusted with the job.
Some of the exterior facades, as I mentioned, had already been completed, but other walls were being tended to right at this time. Rustic-looking scaffoldings had been erected using wooden poles and platforms tied with rope, like some imaginary jungle treehouse. But it was not playtime for these workmen, who were hard at work, positioned on all different levels, laying tiles or smoothing plasters.
Behind all this is a backdrop of a more modern urban vintage, as the city has grown up right around these tombs, not leaving a great deal of breathing space. Some people might gripe at the intrusion of modernity, with its grimy and uneven walls and reminders of industrialization, at the periphery of the tomb site, but I actually think it is an asset. Perhaps it is just my own fondness for cityscapes of all kinds, but I was charmed by the way the neighborhood seems to cuddle around the tombs in a kind of dusty embrace. I like the juxtaposition of the old and new, the layering of epochs one right on top of the other.
I also would have liked for one of the tombs to be left in its state of ruin, to demonstrate to future visitors how immense the restoration project had been on the rest of it (and also because--I can’t help it--I just love ruins). But perhaps that would leave a sense of incompletion on the part of Ishtiaq and his team, who want to make sure that their work is done with excellence from start to finish.
It was a bright afternoon, pleasantly warm. It felt a full day had already passed, even though I had actually only been back in the country for about 14 hours at this point. I was eager for a rest. And, as he always seems to do, Inam was able to sense this, and had even prepared for it, or else Ishtiaq had, in this case. As we returned to the front courtyard after seeing all the tombs, a low table was waiting for us, with several chairs around it, already set with bottles of water and plates of cookies. And soon, as I have grown to expect, that magical tea once again appeared out of nowhere, brought to us on a tray by some servant or worker from Ishtiaq’s team. I hadn’t been away from Pakistan long, but I had already been missing this tea.
And so once again a chapter ends with that sweet and strong hot tea of Sindh. And there are so many more stories still to tell in coming chapters -- I am not even sure which will come next. Perhaps the trip to Makli and Thatta that happened the day after this, or maybe the trip to Khairpur that I hinted at earlier in this episode; or else perhaps I will delve into a wonderful subject that I have been saving for some time, which is Sindhi music. We shall see. For now, wari milandaseen, Allah wahee.
My photos from the Mir Tombs: a slideshow.
When I began writing this, my intention was to get quickly to the point and share my experience of visiting the Mir tombs in Hyderabad, after just a quick preface explaining how I got to that point. But as I was reliving those prefatory experiences, I realized that they are a story unto themselves--but a more internal one. The photo-adventures will return in the next blog post--but for now, I invite you to make the night-time journey across the world with me once again.
This was the beginning of my second trip to Sindh. If you read my first travelogue entry, you’ll already know what it felt like for me to arrive in Karachi and breathe the air and see the strange new landscapes of my Sindh for the first time. And now, less than two months after my first trip, I was already making my return. (The reason for that good fortune was the marriage of my second Sangi sister, Moomal--an event significant enough to justify a second trip in such a short time.) The second trip would naturally have a different feel from the first. This time I would be retracing my recent steps, revisiting instead of discovering. I was grateful for the opportunity to have a second go at all the traveling procedures that had seemed stressful the first time. This time I knew exactly how to procure my Visa, how long the lines would be at JFK airport, how the Dubai airport was configured, and what to expect when I reached Karachi. So my excitement for this trip was tempered this time with that particular calm that is the mark of the more experienced traveler. And this time even more than the last, it was a feeling that I was simply returning home.
The other difference this second time around was that I was on my own. Andrew (my husband) had been with me for my first arrival in Sindh, and he had stayed for most of that first trip, as many days as he had been able to get away from the various facets of his work in the US. That first trip had also coincided with winter vacations at the university where he works; but now it was February and his teaching semester and concert season were in full swing. So there was no way for him to escape with me for a second adventure across the world. And he was sad to miss this second set of festivities, having become very fond of all our Sangi relatives during his previous short stay in Larkana. But it is a testament to the extremely good care that was given to us when we were there the first time that he had no fears about allowing me to go back again, on my own. He knew that I would be fully protected, from beginning to end. And he got very used to explaining to people here why he was home alone for a few weeks--which would invariably be met with amazement: “she went back?? already?!”
And yes, I was going back, already, and once again was brimming with excitement. I found myself once again floating bleary-eyed down the long and shiny corridors of the Dubai airport, where all Emirates flights to Pakistan have their layover. I must not have been covering my head yet, though I had my dupatta at the ready and was planning to put it on soon and reacquaint myself with that now-comfortable feeling of hijab. I was more concerned with finding some kind of food that would be palatable to me in my excited state and keep me sated for these last hours of travel. Dubai is a consumer paradise, with ranks upon ranks of offerings of all nationalities and flavors, so the trouble is one of too much choice rather than not enough. All the glitz of the Dubai airport has a deeply impersonal feel, though, despite the friendly service and ease of navigation. I was already looking forward to landing in Karachi, where the corridors are not shiny but have a warmth of use, of being lived in, where the walls and designs, though perhaps faded, have a uniqueness, and a sense that they have a story to tell.
Though I was already longing for that special feel of Sindh, I did have the good sense to take advantage of the luxury of Dubai for this moment. I bought myself a tremendously tangy pomegranate-flavored frozen yogurt from a very fancy stand that offered a spectrum of toppings in every color, berries and kiwi-fruit wedges and mango cubelets and other sweet delights. And it was genuinely delicious. I sat down at a little table near the vendor and soon became quite absorbed in this tango of flavors. Which made it all the more surprising to hear someone say my name.
“Excuse me--Miss Emily?”
I looked up. There was a trio of gentlemen standing there, three travelers with smiling and curious faces. I must have been wide-eyed with surprise. “Yes?”
“Excuse me, but I think I know you,” said the one of them who had spoken before. “Are you Dr. Saeed Sangi’s daughter, from Larkana?”
And now I had to smile. “Yes indeed I am,” I said, and then a bit sheepishly, “Did I meet you during my last trip?”
No no, he reassured me--he simply knew of me from Facebook, so did not expect me to recognize him. He explained that he and his friends were from Larkana, and now they were traveling somewhere else, and what a nice surprise that they had found me here. Looking at them now I could recognize that same quality of welcome that was now so familiar to me from Sindh. And when they asked me very politely if they could have their picture taken with me, I was happy to oblige, despite being frazzled from travel. And so the phones came out and photos were snapped, and soon the three travelers when on their way, giggling with the pleasure that usually ensues when I venture enough Sindhi to say “Wari milandaaseen!” (See you again.)
And I finished up my yogurt, pondering with amazement that I could be recognized even out here in the Middle East, many thousands of miles from my American home and another thousand miles from my Larkana home. But it is not so unusual really, because of that fragrance of Sindh that now follows me wherever I am, something that unites all people who love Sindh, whether they were born there or not. And so even as I had been enjoying my deluxe international Emirati frozen yogurt, a bit of Sindh was able to find me.
But before moving on toward my gate, I did pull my shawl up over my head, and began to assume a more demure attitude. Being recognized was lovely, but now I wanted to blend in--at least, not to appear obviously American. Fortunately that is not so difficult for me. Though my skin tone and eye color are unusual in Pakistan, there isn’t much in my general look or manner that betrays my Americanness. I have been asked a few times, to my great pleasure, if I was perhaps a Pathan. In those cases, depending on the circumstances, I either respond that I’m American or that “muhnjo wasto Larkaney saan aahey” -- I’m from Larkana.
As I put the dupatta over my head, I was conjuring again my Asian identity, and it was a comfort to me. Actually, probably at least half of the women who were gathering for this flight from Dubai to Karachi were not covering their heads, which I noted with interest as I walked along rows of seats to find a place to wait. Almost everyone there appeared to be of Asian/Pakistani origin, except for one notably white American businessman, who looked just like such men always do, with their square frame and white shirt and tie and briefcase full of certainly very important documents. It was a quiet confirmation of that general stereotype that no one comes to Pakistan just to visit and to appreciate the country--the only foreign faces that Pakistanis usually get to see are people who are there on business. As I passed by that man I could sense his curiosity, because I did not fit that pattern, yet clearly I was taking the same flight.
I sat near a weary-looking woman who was feeding a bright-eyed toddler in a stroller. The mother was wearing a traditional shalwar kameez and was also covering her head. Soon after I sat down, she asked me if I could look after the baby for a moment while she went to the bathroom. I said of course, and I was happy to watch this energetic little guy as he arranged and rearranged the lid of his sippy cup in several different positions while occasionally exclaiming some one-syllable word of triumph. I wondered if she would have been as quick to trust me if I hadn’t had my own head covered. Perhaps she would have. Still there is something fascinating about the different statements we can make with our clothes. In my case, I wasn’t actually saying that I am a practicing Muslim -- because I am not -- though it could have been read that way. But I was genuinely saying that I cared about Muslim culture and social practice, and that is probably what was suggested to the travel-weary mother that she could trust me for these moments with her child.
When I landed in Karachi, I sent a text to my younger Sangi brother Faisal, who again had been assigned to meet me there, and once again in the middle of the night (2:30 AM, I think). And I proceeded down the now-familiar hallways of Jinnah Airport towards the customs and immigration. I was still discreetly veiled as I greeted the customs official with a friendly “Assalaam-o-alaikum,” but of course the American passport I was handing him undercut my illusion.
This was a very different gentleman from the one who had welcomed me and Andrew with open arms on our last arrival--but he was just as memorable to me. He had a stern, austere look, but kindness hiding a bit deeper in his eyes. “Walaikum-assalaam,” he said with some surprise, at first hardly glancing at the passport before saying, “You are already dressed as a Pakistani woman!”
“Ji haan,” I nodded, wishing in this moment that I could come up with some more impressive Urdu to surprise him with in this moment. But it wasn’t coming. So I just said, “I’ve been here before, and recently.”
“Ji haan! You know some Urdu,” he said with yet greater surprise. And then in a graver tone, “You must know about the situation in our country.”
“Yes, I know a great deal about it,” I started to assure him, though I sensed that this wasn’t going to become a long conversation as he was already stamping my passport or whatever it was his job to do at this station. “I won’t be traveling alone. I’m staying with a family.”
“Just be very careful. Take care of yourself.” And he handed me back my passport with a look that spoke volumes to me, though it lasted only a fraction of a second. It was a look of concern, of sincere humanity, tempered with the necessity of his official job. He was not prying nor controlling, and being cautious to maintain the impartiality required of him. But there was an unmistakable note of compassion for me in his few words. He had not asked me anything about my purposes, and was not treating me with suspicion the way an American official would treat a foreigner. Instead he had entreated me to protect myself. That touch of humanity is unforgettable to me. And all this was mixed with the strains of deep lament for Pakistan, a melody of sadness that will be familiar to all those who love this troubled country in their hearts.
I would have liked to prolong that moment and tell him some of the many reasons I love his country, but there was a line behind me and his attentions had already shifted. So I thanked him and went on to gather my bags and was soon outside on the platform where Faisal was waiting for me. He greeted me with his usual cheeriness and took me to where the hired driver was waiting to take us to Hyderabad, which was my destination this time. Instead of the seven-hour drive to Larkana and a day packed with sightseeing, this time I was just going to be ferried the short distance to Hyderabad, where I would be received by my dear friend Inam Sheikh, and where I knew I would be allowed to rest a while before all the new adventures began.
Faisal chattered charmingly to me in the car as we drove into the night on the Karachi-Hyderabad Superhighway. At first he was reassuming his role as tour guide and offering to tell me more about the things we were passing and explain more unusual Pakistani customs that I might not know about. Gradually the conversation shifted to zanier things, like UFOs and the potentials of alien life forms having already made contact with us on this planet. I soon came to understand that Faisal had also recently taken a motion-sickness medicine that was making him a bit loopy as he also became increasingly sleepy. I told him he was welcome to go ahead and fall asleep there in the car, but he was very determined to stay awake until he had dropped me off in Hyderabad. “Emily, why don’t you come on to Larkana now--without you we will get boooored,” he drawled sweetly. His conversation became more and more adorably incoherent until, perhaps fifteen minutes before we arrived, he could no longer prevent his own slipping into the oblivion of sleep.
I had to wake him up, reluctantly, so that he could help the driver locate Inam’s house. This did not prove difficult, and when we turned down the correct street, I immediately recognized the familiar slim frame of Inam himself, where he was waiting outside to welcome me, even though it was 4:30 in the morning, and the rest of his household was still sleeping. My bags were unloaded and Faisal got back in the car to be taken the rest of the way to Larkana, presumably in a state of deep sleep.
Meanwhile, dear Inam showed no evidence of being tired at his own early wakeup call to meet me here. Such is the hospitality of Sindh. He brought me inside and offered me some juice and cookies, and we chatted for a few minutes about the itinerary for my next couple of days in Hyderabad before I retired to my guest room. The evening schedule had already been set -- a dinner with many of the leading intellectuals of Hyderabad awaited me that night, and the following night a slightly different gathering of similarly impressive friends over a concert of traditional Sindhi music. We decided that we’d save the visits to sites outside of Hyderabad for my second day, Makli and Thatta, and that we’d explore a little bit of the city itself on this first day--after an attempt on my part to sleep off a bit of my jet lag. (And those friends who were with me for these days in Hyderabad know that I wasn’t very successful! And was continuously fighting off that sleepiness on both subsequent days. But not to the detriment of my enjoyment of the many beautiful things that awaited me there.)
So I will stop this entry here in the hope that I will follow up very soon with the next entry, a more typical photo-documented episode, from this first day in Hyderabad. Namely, my visit to the tombs of the Talpur Mir emperors, which have been falling into ruin for the last centuries, but are now being meticulously restored. I have already begun to share photos from that visit on my Facebook page…. but soon I will write up the experience here in detail.
Until then: wari milandaaseen.
My brother Fawad drove us that particular afternoon to Papa Saeed’s clinic--a short drive across town through the now-familiar streets of Larkana. Because he is protective of my safety, Fawad wanted me to sit in the backseat of the car, where I would be less visible. In general I had grown quite used to wearing covering my head with my dupatta whenever I rode in a car, but when riding with Papa alone I always rode happily in the front and didn’t mind the inquisitive stares of Larkanians who so rarely see pale-faced visitors to their city. But it is not unusual for women to ride in the back, completely covered, as a matter of routine. Dark window shades a common feature of many cars in Pakistan, serving to protect the women inside both from the harsh rays of the sun and the roaming gaze of men on the street. We didn’t have those screens up in the windows, but I kept myself well veiled as I sat in the backseat with Papa, while our guard, Hajji Mehmoud, sat in the front.
Papa’s clinic is situated near the mouth of a long alleyway that was already quite familiar to me from his photographs. I love alleyway views like this one, with their different surfaces and angles, with light bouncing in unusual directions as it ricochets down the narrow passage. And there were extra reflective surfaces for that light on this particular afternoon, mirrors of leftover rainfall from the previous day--a rare occurrence in arid Larkana.
The office was already open and alive with patients when we arrived. Papa’s assistant had already triaged several patients, early arrivals, who were now hovering about the small waiting room. We squeezed through this room and turned right to enter Papa’s inner office, which is not much bigger than the waiting room.
“Not many patients today, SWEET EM!” said Papa as he rounded the corner of his desk and sat down. “Maybe because it is Saturday. You want some tea? And cookies?” And he motioned for the assistant to go and fulfill that order. As usual I have no idea where the tea came from, but after a while it did materialize as always, along with a plate stacked high with crumbly butter cookies.
But within moments the “not many patients” started streaming into the room. They do not set up appointments in advance--they simply know what hours Papa usually comes in, and they come, and they wait their turn. Sort of. While Papa tends one patient, the next patient or two is already in the room. And most patients are accompanied by a small swarm of relatives, so the room fills quickly, but the mood is kept buoyant by Papa’s joyful banter and impish giggles.
This busy scene, a doctor’s inner office brimming with simultaneous visitors, came as a genuine surprise to me. In America, a doctor’s office is a quiet sanctum of privacy and confidentiality--not just by choice, but by law. The Western legal system protects medical information with iron-clad injunctions, and a person’s medical condition is considered extremely personal information, to be divulged only with the most trusted friends and associates. The Western attitude is so extreme, in fact, that one can easily find oneself in an awkward situation around the simple question “how are you”--because if the answer is anything other than “fine,” then careful tiptoeing must often ensue if the inquirer wants to ascertain the source of the other person’s ailments, even if he merely wants to be compassionate. And there are further complications to medical etiquette in the Western setting. Health matters are not only considered private and sensitive to the person in question, but a potential burden to the hearer. Someone who is genuinely suffering from some illness, through no fault of his own, will feel uncomfortable telling others about it, in fear that it will burden or discomfort them. And even more frequently, Westerners will keep their ailments secret for fear of being judged, for being considered ‘weak’ or ‘unfit’ for whatever essential work they are supposed to be doing with their lives.
Coming from this context, it has often amazed me -- but in a refreshing way -- when my Pakistani friends announce their illnesses in public statuses, share images of their surgical wounds, and even upload images of themselves in hospital beds, connected to IV drip fluids. I myself have had to spend what felt like interminable stretches of time lying wretched in a hospital bed attached to such a drip, and feeling so ashamed of my potentially perceived ‘weakness’ that I didn’t even want visitors--and I would have been mortified if anyone had shared a picture of me in that situation. But for many of my Pakistani friends, this is not something to be ashamed of at all. It is a normal thing, to go through health woes, to ask for prayers, and to recover. On the whole, that strikes me as a much healthier attitude. Westerners, on the whole, try to conceal illness and forget about it. I think that we in the West actually tends to give the impression that we are never ill and never suffer -- which is both egregiously untrue and unhelpful for our own psyches and our appearance to the world. From what I have observed in the East, illness is far less stigmatized, more present, more normalized.
In any event, the patients who poured into Papa’s office on this Saturday afternoon did not seem at all bothered by my presence during their visits, even though I was not only an outsider, but an outsider with a camera. All were pleased to greet me and have their picture taken, even as they were being examined. Of course, they were all introduced to me as Papa’s daughter from America--so not really an outsider. But still, their unabashed openness, not only with me but also in view of a handful of other strangers who were waiting to be seen by the doctor, was remarkable to me.
The first patient was a woman with a gentle smile, who was accompanied by a man, probably her husband, but perhaps even her father or some other relation. The woman sat up on the examining table, and Papa's standard cardiological dialogue ensued.
“Dey khabar. Dil men soor aathey?” asked Papa. (“Tell me what’s new. Any pain in your heart?”)
She shook her head.
Papa raised his stethoscope to her back.
“Saah khann,” he instructed. (“Take a breath.")
She breathed. “Drigho saah khann,” he said. (“Take a deep breath.”)
This particular patient didn’t speak much, letting her companion do most of the talking. He had a businesslike manner and a stately appearance, with a bright white beard and a weathered underneath the coils of an ajrak turban, and he wore a blazer over his shalwar kameez. He brought with him a bag full of the woman’s medicines, which he presented to Papa Saeed and discussed them with him in some detail. And this was also a striking contrast to what I am used to: not only medical information but medicines themselves are strictly regulated in the West, especially in America. For any drug more powerful than a simple Tylenol (paracetamol), a patient must get a prescription from the doctor to present to the pharmacist, who then passes it through elaborate insurance bureaucracy before eventually printing up a specially labeled bottle with dosage instructions as well as the patient’s and doctor’s contact information, and often an additional small file of papers that include every possible side effect that has ever been experienced with the drug in question. (I am not kidding.) In Pakistan, there are no such regulations in place. Drugs are bought without prescription and without insurance (and prices for drugs, fortunately, are only a tiny fraction of what they are in America). A doctor is needed to give the crucial advice about what to take and in what dose, but after that it is up to the patient to buy the right medicine and remember his dose. Conscientious patients and their caretakers, like this gentlemen in the ajrak turban, are wise to bring the medicines themselves to the doctor and make sure that they are being used properly.
Around this time, Papa’s assistant, who had been busy in the anteroom, reached back in through the doorway to lay a small wad of paper slips into a slot on Papa’s desk. Papa unfolded one of these narrow strips to its full length of perhaps a yard; it was printed with a fine red grid overlaid with a jagged black line--the printout of an EKG. [Note: yes, admittedly, the acronym “ECG” makes more sense as an abbreviation of Electrocardiogram. But EKG is also an accepted version of this, and it’s what we usually say in America. In any case, it’s the same thing.] As I would soon learn, every patient receives an EKG during triage, before his or her visit with Papa, and the results reliably appeared upon his desk in time for him to peruse them. Like other doctors’ offices that I have seen in Sindh, nothing here was computerized. There was no computer on Papa’s desk, and no clicking of a mouse to check into medical records. This medical system is analogue, physical, unmediated.
Payment is treated likewise in a simple and unmediated way. Before leaving, each patient pays the same fee, in cash -- 500 rupees, which translates to roughly $5. This amount can buy much more in Pakistan than it can in America, as food and most other products are much cheaper. To poorer Sindhi patients, 500 rupees is a significant amount, but still it is not overwhelming. For Papa, it is essential income and spending money for his family.
Many more patients came through the door in these few hours I spent at the clinic. Some came from nearby villages, others from within the city, and some had even traveled dozens of miles to come to Papa specifically. One such patient was a formidable-looking Baloch gentleman wearing a Sindhi topi over his immense and impressively coifed beard and mustache. That aspect of severity fled quickly from his face when asked by Papa Saeed to smile for the camera--an irresistible entreaty, as anyone who is familiar with Papa will already know.
The most loving smiles that I received on this day, though, were from a pair of women who arrived together, one wearing a full burqa and the other also elaborately covered, both of whom soon lifted their veils to reveal their gentle faces. Papa Saeed explained to them that I was his American daughter, but he might as well have said that I was their own daughter, from the warmth of the hugs and greetings that they both gave me. And there was something especially poignant to me about this warmth coming from women who wear burqas. Burqas are not uncommon in Pakistan, but I have had very few interactions with their wearers--most Pakistani women I have spent time with wear a simple dupatta as a hijab, or else none at all. But the few times I have spoken with burqa-clad women, after they have lifted that front panel and revealed their smiling faces, I have been particularly struck by their kind spirits. Now, probably they were no more kind than the other women I met in many other situations, who on the whole can also be characterized by beautiful smiles and welcoming spirits. More likely it is simply a remnant of a Western fear of the burqa, which is an understandable if unjustified fear, simply because it is a marker of mystery -- we feel uncomfortable if a face is concealed from us; we feel that this person must be unapproachable. And when the face beneath is revealed as being full of love and grace--it is a memorable thing. I will always remember the grace of these two women, who kindly allowed me to take their portrait.
When another bundle of EKG-slips materialized on Papa’s desk, I asked if I could go see their source.
“OF COURSE SWEETIE,” said Papa, who then summoned the assistant, who, in turn, motioned for me to follow him. There connected to the waiting room was another, even smaller and sparer room, where a young girl in green embroidery was lying on a table. Standing beside her was a man who was clearly a relation. “Tawhanjee ddee aahey?” I asked him in my very halting Sindhi. (“Is she your daughter?”) He shook his head and told me in his own hesitant English that the girl was his niece.
As the assistant started positioning nodes for the EKG reading, I asked the uncle in some combination of Sindhi and English if it would be okay for me to take pictures. The girl seemed a bit timid, but also curious, and they both indicated that they didn’t mind.
Back in the inner office, I learned that this girl is named Tasveera, age 10, and she has been a patient of Papa’s for most of her life. She suffers from a congenital condition that causes an enlarged heart, and as her heart continues to grow in size, it shrinks in function. She seems a typically healthy girl from the outside--normal in build, bubbly and energetic. “With careful treatment, we have been able to keep her symptom-free, for now,” said Papa.
Tasveera sat on the table and was instructed to “Saah khann.” Then Papa asked her to lie back and rest her head on the pillow.
“You see, SWEET EM!” he said, beckoning for me to come closer. “This is how large her heart is.” With a pointed finger hovering an inch above Tasveera’s chest, he traced an outline of a shape that was at least the size of a typical lung.
“If you promise not to cry,” said Papa Saeed, in a soft tone that I have rarely otherwise heard from his voice, “if you promise just to smile, then I’ll tell you what her heart function is.”
“Her heart is currently functioning at 20 percent,” he told me.
I nodded again, hiding any reaction while Tasveera sat up and then bounced off of the examining table and sat down in the chair in front of the desk. Watching this lovely, smiling girl, it was impossible not to be bruised by the irony of her suffering, caused by too big a heart.
The next patient was even younger -- a baby in fact, a cute little fellow with a hat on his round head, sitting on his mother’s lap. I asked with trepidation, “Is he all right?”
Papa was already engaged in jubilant interaction with this little fellow and didn’t hear me at first. So I said again, “Will he be okay?”
“OH YES EM!” he replied. “This one is in good shape. See here? Doesn’t he look happy? See, I can make any baby smile. See?” And Papa proceeded to make a number of whimsical sounds in the baby’s general direction, and then offered the little guy a cookie from the plate.
Soon after this, I was once again ferried away in a car and delivered safely back home. Papa Saeed carried on for some hours longer, as he does each day, with smiles and laughter, treating the ailing hearts of Larkana.
heart clinic: photo gallery.
The same images as above (which you can see here at higher resolution), plus some extras.
“Gorakh Hill Station” was one of those phrases I had heard many times from my Sindhi friends, a place of myth and legend, or so it seemed. But what it actually was, I had no idea--until recently. So when the opportunity arose for me to go and discover this fabled place, I quickly agreed, even though it would involve a long drive requiring a rugged vehicle and an overnight stay in some mysterious and rustic lodging.
“We will pack blankets and towels and these lights,” said Papa Saeed distractedly as he switched some portable lights on and off to check their charge. “Because you know there might not be electricity on the Gorakh Hill. And bring a… you know, this thing. Shawl. Right? ...Because it will be cold.”
So I packed a change of clothes, including a sweater and a shawl, but somehow when you are in the pattern of one kind of weather it is very difficult to imagine what you will need in a different one. Temperatures in Larkana had been hovering around a balmy 90 degrees (32 C) in the daytime, and my body had already forgotten the sensation of cold wind slapping against it.
Papa Saeed had made all the necessary arrangements, as usual, without my fully knowing what they were. But it is a sign of the deep trust I have in him as a father-figure that I had no qualms about taking on this rather arduous journey to a remote place in his company, along with only a few other (male) friends and helpers. Our adventure crew--as I began to think of them--consisted of Javed Shaikh, an engineer, who also provided the vehicle required to tackle this terrain; Akhtar Lund, a friend who had stayed at Gorakh many times before and knew the route well; Barkat, a servant of Akhtar’s; Hajji Mehmoud, the Larkana policeman who was my guard during my whole stay; and another driver, whose name I unfortunately do not know.
For the first part of the ride--the easy part--our adventure team took two vehicles. The professional driver was at the wheel of the Hilux SUV that Javed had provided, and Javed in the front seat; papa and I in back. Akhtar Lund followed us with his servant and my guard in a separate car as far as Johi, which is essentially the last outpost of civilization on the way to Gorakh. In Johi, the other car was parked and left behind. Javed now took the wheel of the SUV, and Akhtar sat in the front. The other three men -- guard, servant, and driver, now all sat in the open bed at the back of the car, exposed to all elements--sun and dust and wind and the sweeping heights of the mountains as we continued.
But after consolidating our crew in Johi, there was quite a lot of road to traverse before we actually came to the mountains. This land is generally a flat, desert plain--perhaps not a genuine desert, and I have not yet experienced the true deserts of Pakistan so I cannot compare, but certainly to my Western eyes this seemed to be something approaching a desert. There is vegetation, but these were mainly the hardy, sharp-edged shrubs and knotted trees that can grow in desert wilderness. Papa and Javed were discussing the possibilities of vegetation in this region, talking about the water table and the potential irrigation systems and, I think, one irrigation line that had been brought in at some point in the past. I listened with half an ear while we bounced and rumbled our way over the road of dirt and rock, the edges of which had been eroded dramatically by flood waters during past monsoon seasons.
Javed handled this road deftly, though I learned that this was actually his first time driving it. In his professional life, he has worked to improve and restore infrastructure and heritage sites much like this one, and his hope is to play a role in improving accessibility to Gorakh as well. Because of the difficulty of the journey, it is a place that many Sindhis only dream of seeing.
But that does not mean that the road was empty. All along the drive I was quite amazed to see how many other vehicles were proceeding along the same terrain, some of them far less adaptable to the wilds. Especially early on in the journey, we passed several painted freight trucks, piled high with cargo and human passengers as well, precariously tilting left and right as they approached us on the narrow road. Others were regular cars, some donkey carts, some camel caravans, some tractors, some motorcycles. Only one vehicle could fit comfortably on the road at any given point, so the other would always have to come to a complete stop to allow it to pass. Javed was authoritative in his driving and almost always required the other vehicle to do that stopping and waiting while we barreled past.
At no point did the road empty completely of other travelers, but it became far less populated as we approached the mountains. I asked Papa if we could occasionally stop for photographs, as my camera was beginning to feel eager to soak in the new surroundings. He said of course and that I could stop them at any point. And each time we stopped, when I emerged from the car, I found us amidst a landscape that was brighter, dustier, emptier, and windier than it had previously been.
Always seeking a higher vantage point, I would climb up onto the back of the car, where the three fellows had been riding so dauntlessly. And as I snapped photos of the wilderness from this perch, with my guard and his rifle sitting very close by, and my bright red dupatta flapping in the wind, I thought of what a strange adventure my life had become since I had discovered and been discovered by Sindh.
But I tried not to linger in this reverie, as there were still more miles to be traveled, and although every vista was worthy of being photographed, we couldn’t stop everywhere, especially because we intended to arrive at the summit by sunset. Soon we were climbing steep roads, twisting our way up the mountain. Out the right car windows we could see how high we were swiftly rising, where the road dropped off sharply into an increasing abyss.
We stopped the car for photos at one starkly beautiful hairpin turn in the road. Here, unlike many other places, there was a stone guiderail protecting us from the cliff-edge. But my dare-devil Papa insisted on removing that layer of protection and dangling his legs over the edge. “I will not fall for thirty years!” he proclaimed--referring to some fortune-teller’s recent prediction. I do not find this line reassuring. However, my pleas to Papa to play it safe always fall upon deaf ears. My own stubbornness is well known to all my friends…. but there is one person I know who is even more immovable, and that is papa. So I have many photographs of a grinning papa balancing on some rock-face or other, which I snapped through clenched teeth and then demanded he return to safety. Which he always did, with his charming but naughty giggle.
The sun’s rays were slanting toward horizontal and the wind was picking up as we covered the last stretch of road, finally arriving at Benazir Viewpoint just a few minutes before sunset. I had to spend a couple of those minutes opening my suitcase and pulling out that shawl I had brought along, because the wind was fiercely cold. Wrapped as best I could manage, I trotted out to where Papa and the others were already admiring the expansive vista in its last sunlight of the day.
Benazir Viewpoint feels a surprising outpost of civilization and organization after one has traveled on the ruined and abandoned road that leads there. The Viewpoint itself is a well-planned tourist destination, signpost and all. A stretch of concrete sidewalks, fitted with hand railings all along, makes for a safe and scenic walk along the summit of Gorakh Hill. At both ends of the sidewalk track there are pavilions with scrolled park benches--and these would have been delightful places to stop and rest, had the wind not been so brutal. (I can certainly understand why this place is a beloved haven for Sindhis in summertime, when temperatures at ground level range from ultra-hot to sweltering.)
I don’t know how many miles one can see into the distance from up there, but it seemed limitless. What makes it uncanny, however, is that there is no evidence of human civilization in all those miles of landscape. That view is almost entirely a symphony of stone, softened only a little by those hardy short shrubs and, further out, narrow and winding beds of waterways, dry at this time of year. The starkness of it all makes the visitor wonder if he has accidentally landed on Mars, especially when seen in the reddening light of sunset.
I could only tolerate a small amount of this cold, so after the sun had descended completely, I urged us back into the car to make our way over to the guest house. If the sidewalks and signposts seemed improbable up here at this height, the guest house on Gorakh seemed even more unlikely. There are two buildings, actually, though they are not connected by anything as logical as a road, or even a walkway. From the guest house proper, one can look across a stretch of rocky and uneven terrain toward the other building, which is more of a conference center. Both are elegant, simple constructions, with airy archways and views over the bluff. Getting from one to the other, the car has to do some rough four-wheel maneuvering; walking across the rocks to get there is relatively easy in comparison.
For the time being, we only needed the guest house. We got the vehicle somewhat close to the building and then carried our suitcases the rest of the way. (Actually, Hajji Mehmoud carried mine. In all my time in Pakistan, I don’t think I ever had to carry my own suitcase -- it was always the work of a servant or guard -- and this never ceased to feel like a real luxury to me.)
The night was quickly darkening, but at this point there was still some electricity functioning inside the guest house -- though only in specific rooms, we learned. The lodge is built in a hexagonal shape (or some similar polygon), with numbered guest rooms whose doors open up onto a central courtyard which is open to the sky.
There was some confusion as we tried to figure out which rooms to occupy. We were the only guests staying there that night, fortunately, but the configuration still caused us trouble. Papa was looking for a room with two beds, so that he could stay in the same room with me. But the only rooms with twin beds were ones (if I remember correctly) that had no electricity. So he was trying to work out a way to have a second bed brought into one of the regular rooms. But soon I realized that he was going to this trouble purely out of worry that I would be frightened if left alone in a room here. Fears of that sort, usually from pure superstition, are common among girls especially in Sindh -- my sisters had even offered to stay in my room back at the Sangi house in case I was scared to be alone in that space. Here same as there, I assured Papa that I had no qualms about being in a room by myself, and that actually I’d be more comfortable that way. The doors had good bolts on them, so I didn’t feel vulnerable. He seemed satisfied, and the order for a second bed delivery was called off.
I took a few minutes to organize my things in my room and to put on as many additional layers of clothing as I had with me. Inside the rooms was only marginally warmer than outside, partially protected as they were from the harshness of the wind, but not from the ambient cold. Rejoining Papa and the other gentlemen, I sat huddled on a chair as far away from the open door as I could. The guest rooms are all elegantly appointed, at least at first glance, with fine chairs and large beds and tasteful furniture. This must be the room in which Akhtar will be staying, I thought, seeing his servant pull out a variety of homey comforts from the suitcases they had brought: fresh bedsheets and pillows and blankets to replace the rather dubious ones that were there. (“Dont worry sweetie,” said Papa to me, “we can use the clean towels that we brought as bedsheets and pillowcases.”)
My eyes must have brightened significantly when I saw teacups and a kettle emerging from Akhtar’s luggage, however. It is a particularly delightful talent of my Pakistani friends to be able to conjure hot tea and coffee practically from thin air. And Akhtar had not only this but also a soft and spongy pound cake from a Larkana bakery. Hot coffee and buttery sweet cake were exactly what I needed to improve my spirits, which had soured in response to cold temperatures and low blood-sugar. Soon I was once again content.
And then very soon after that it was already dinner time. The dinner materialized even more miraculously than the tea had. I don’t know where it had been prepared -- presumably in the other building, across that rocky expanse, because I hadn’t seen a kitchen in the guest house. But soon there were staff members--all cloaked heavily against the cold--bringing in dish after covered dish of hot and flavorful Sindhi foods. The dishes kept arriving--more than we had room for on the makeshift table that we improvised by pushing several small chests of drawers together. It was an enormous spread of food which could have easily fed twenty people, though we were only seven. Papa, Javed, Akhtar, and I were served first, but we had several of the dishes sent over to our guard and servants, who were eating in a different room. That sort of upstairs/downstairs division is deeply ingrained in the society; it is simply understood, for reasons I still don’t completely grasp. As the staff servants were leaving the room, having dropped off the dishes, Papa asked if I wanted a cold drink (and the phrase “cold-drink” is generally used in Sindh as if it were one word, meaning “soda”), and I said I’d love a Diet Coke. The servants had already left the room, so Akhtar turned his head toward the door and bellowed, “Chhokra!!” (“Boy!”) I smiled to myself, since such forceful commands still strike my American sensibilities as something both comical and uncomfortable. But I certainly couldn’t complain; and my cold-drink was delivered to me in moments.
Midway through dinner, the room went black. Loss of electricity is something that all Pakistanis are familiar with, and sudden darkness is usually greeted with a mixture of giggles and groans. Blackouts on Gorakh Hill are noteworthy, however, because it gets extremely dark up there. No nearby buildings with auxiliary power bleeding a pale glow into your frame of vision--because there are no nearby buildings. On Gorakh, there’s only starlight.
Just as one becomes accustomed to sudden darkness in Pakistan, one also grows to expect the inevitable first point of light that will pierce that darkness, namely the tiny beam of whichever cell-phone flashlight is easiest at hand. And that little light tends to illuminate the way to a larger, battery-powered LED light, whose wan, bluish color will have to suffice for the time to come. Usually, planned load-shedding only lasts a span of an hour or two, at least in the larger cities I have visited, and other outages are generally shorter. On Gorakh Hill, however, we would not have electricity for the rest of the night or the following morning. There was also no cell signal, so for these next hours we were truly disconnected from the grid of modernity.
Warmed from our dinner, Papa and I ventured into the windy courtyard to look up to the stars, undimmed by light pollution. Taking photographs of these stars, without the help of a tripod, proved difficult. Papa brought out one of our blankets, which I wrapped around myself like a cocoon, and lay smack in the middle of the courtyard facing upwards, trying to hold my camera still for an 8-second exposure, which feels like an eternity when trying not to shiver in the cold. The results were not stunning -- I didn’t manage perfect stillness for any of the takes -- but the stars and other heavenly bodies were still recorded, with their colors, in my camera.
“Emily, what on earth are you doing!” called Javed, who had caught sight of me in my strange brown bundle at the center of the courtyard. I laughed. Photography often requires strange pantomimes. And I would have stayed at it much longer, were it not for the cold. So I gathered myself up and went back in to join the others, now gathered in yet a different room (Papa’s, I think), where I deposited myself, still wrapped in the same blanket. The four of us sat in discreet blanket-wrapped packages, lit by two of those intrepid but struggling battery-powered lights.
Javed had told me that he is an avid singer, so I took this opportunity to ask him to teach me a Sindhi song. Fortunately, the one he chose was simple enough for me to catch on: “Shaam jo hee pahar, naan asaan jey kayo… kujh ta eenda kayo, key ta gaalhyon kayo.” I asked Javed to sing each line several times, while I repeated them to him. Papa meanwhile offered translations: “In the evening, dedicate some time to me -- come by sometimes, let us talk a while….” With a great deal of help and repetition, I was able to repeat the whole first verse and commit it to memory, and sing it again the next morning and later on in my trip, for other Sindhi friends. So this first Sindhi song was an immaterial but valuable gift that I was given on Gorakh Hill.
But when we were done singing, Papa promptly announced that it was bedtime. So we adventurers dispersed into our different rooms, each with our handheld lights guiding us to our beds. I bolted my door closed and attempted to jam it shut in such a way that it would not rattle quite so fiercely in the wind, but this was not possible. The creaking and rattling of doors and windows has to be accepted as part of the rustic charm of the Gorakh guest house.
In those last minutes before sleep, I was scribbling ideas down in my notebook for this very blog entry. And now I think it is the appropriate moment to end this episode, although the adventure continued in the morning, when we were able to see the same sights as the previous evening, now in the clear light of day. But I will let the photographs in the slide show below fill in the end of the story, and bid you, dear reader, Allah wahee (God bless) until I post my next entry.
Gorakh: slide show
I have been praising Sindhi hospitality continuously since my trip, to anyone who will listen to me, and one of the examples I often give is that almost everyone I met in Sindh offered to serve me tea. Not only friends and family whom we visited intentionally, but also strangers we met in the street, shopkeepers in bazaars, doctors in hospitals, all offered us tea and eagerly served it if we said yes.
At this point, I have often received the question, “why on earth were you visiting hospitals?”
It would not have occurred to me to ask that question, but perhaps it deserves answering. It also affords me the opportunity to step out of chronological order in my travelogue to recount some different experiences, which, though brief and unglamorous, were just as important to me in my trip as the visits to the major sights of Sindh. And there are many reasons for my interest, the simplest of which is that a very large number of my Pakistani friends are doctors, including Papa Saeed and most of my Sangi siblings. For a long time I have been observing them and the conditions in which they work from a distance (via FB). In visiting my Sindhi friends and family, I wanted more than anything to see them in their natural settings, how they live and work, to get a sense of the rhythm of daily activities and the atmosphere of life. I wanted to see all the things that simply seem normal and unexceptional to them, because those were the things that were least normal and most exceptional to me as an outsider.
Hospitals and healthcare settings are also of special interest to me, because I am someone who has had to spend far more time than I would have liked within my own (American) healthcare system. I myself have suffered and have lost very long stretches of my life to an autoimmune disease. Thankfully that illness has been under control for the last several years, but the years of suffering give me an unusual perspective on the world. I am more familiar with physical pain and fatigue than most people of my age, and this despite the benefit of extremely advanced treatments and world-class doctors. I am also fortunate enough to have emerged from that difficult period with most of my energy and all of my joy intact. And this is a kind of hope that I would love to give to other people who are suffering, whether it be from illnesses similar to mine or completely different.
So it is from that perspective that I approached my visits to several different hospitals in Sindh on my first trip, and I hope to visit more in the future. It is very important to note that my experiences so far are limited to the places I visited, and the time I spent there short. At this point I am only recounting my personal observations. So the context is subjective, but I try to look deeply and honestly, so perhaps I can begin to open a window and offer some new light in which to think about it healthcare in Sindh.
One morning towards the end of my stay in Larkana, Papa Saeed and I set out in the car toward the pediatric hospital to see if we could surprise our friend Hafeezullah, who is one of the surgeons there. We pulled in at what I think was a back entrance--at least, it didn’t seem like a main entrance. It was a humble, shady entryway, and the building seemed sturdy but worn. The facility felt well-loved, but over-taxed. The lobby area was quite dim, especially because there was no electricity at this moment. All Pakistanis are used to variability in their electricity, with scheduled load-shedding (intentional power cuts) as well as unscheduled losses of power repeatedly throughout the day. Even hospitals, as I found out on this day, are not exempt from the plight of load-shedding.
The patients and their families waiting in the hallways seemed to come from the lower classes, dressed simply but in the bright colors that always delight the eye in Sindh. Well, the colors are worn by women. Men tend to wear neutral colors apart from the occasional ajrak, worn about the shoulders or tied around the head in a turban. I saw one such man there in the lobby, of indeterminate age, was wearing a tattered white shalwar kameez and a faded ajrak turban, all of which set of a striking contrast against his dark skin and piercing light blue eyes. These were true blue eyes, bluer than mine and just as bright, set incongruously into a weathered-looking face that seemed to have seen countless trials. Perhaps he was there with his child. Of course, no one goes to a hospital to have a good time.
I didn’t have time to linger and take photos in the lobby area--we were quickly on our way up the stairs toward the operating rooms. But my presence and Papa’s never goes unnoticed, wherever we go. Papa is well known throughout the medical community in Larkana, so he is greeted and reverenced wherever he goes. And I, even when dressed in Pakistani clothes, am immediately perceived as something exotic. Fortunately for me, it is never assumed that I am American until Papa says so: “muhnjee amreeki dhee ahey!” (“She’s my American daughter!”) And all the eyes of the whoever is gathered nearby turn to look at us, wherever we pass. In the hospital as everywhere else, those eyes were full of warmth and curiosity, which I attempted to return in kind.
Once upstairs, we found that Dr. Hafeezullah was not at work today, having taken leave and gone with his family on vacation. We wanted to inquire with a supervisor as to when Hafeez would be returning, and of course Papa was asking these questions in Sindhi, with me understanding only every fourth or fifth word that was spoken. I followed Papa and another doctor wherever they were leading, and was instructed to take off my shoes and put on a pair of slippers that was set on the floor. I did as I was told, not yet realizing that we were actually right outside the two operating rooms. When I looked up I found that we were in the doorway of a room in which a surgery was currently taking place, some 15 or so feet away from us.
And here also it was dark--there was no electricity even in the operating room. The surgeons, deep in concentration, were having to perform their operation only using light from a large window near the operating table. No electrical machines appeared to be operating at all; I am given to understand that there are generators, but that even they are not reliable. We found a very similar scene in the other operating room. Surgeons in mid-procedure, operating without light and without any of the elaborate mechanical apparatus that I would have expected. In both rooms I took quick photos from the doorway. Knowing that we should not distract the surgeons any further, Papa and I took our leave.
(Side note to anyone who might be wondering. Papa called Hafeezullah on his cell phone soon after this, and reached him where he was vacationing in Lahore with his family. I told Hafeez that it was a shame to miss him, but that it was no problem, and he should enjoy his vacation. But much to my surprise, he decided to cut his vacation short by a day or two and return to Larkana before I left, to visit with me and Papa and give me a few Sindhi gifts. Sindhi hospitality is always extreme in this way -- always going yet a step further than expected to show affection to guests.)
We left the pediatric hospital to attempt a different visit, to Dr. Zafar Ali Pirzado, a close friend of Papa’s and an uncle (chachu) to me. As usual we were being accompanied by a security detail--a smaller one this time, just two guards, I think, though highly armed as usual. They preceded us down the bright and open lane that enters the campus of what used to be called Chandka Medical College in Larkana. (It has now been subsumed in the larger institution of SMBBMU, a cumbersome acronym that stands for Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Medical University. Shaheed = martyr, Mohtarma = respected lady.) Papa Saeed was a professor of cardiology here until his recent retirement, and so we were warmly greeted by even more than the usual number of medical colleagues who know and admire him.
I didn’t see the entire campus, but the building that we entered was large and elegant, with a clean, spare, minimalist aesthetic. The marble hallways were breezy and cool, though of course it was January. Classes were not in session, so the hallways and courtyards were quiet and felt expansive. The couple of classrooms and technology labs that we visited had no light, but that was likely a prudent electricity-saving measure, as opposed to a woeful deprivation.
There was a faction of discontent, however, on this otherwise placid campus. A group of forty or so medical students had planted themselves on rugs on the ground right at the entrance of the university. As we passed them in the car, I asked Papa why they were protesting. “YOU WANT TO TALK TO THEM, SWEET EM?” he offered.
I was hoping to get a photograph of them looking angry and defiant, but as soon as I stepped out of the car they were all smiles and curiosity. I actually asked them to return to their previous angry look for the sake of the camera, but it was impossible. The spirit of friendliness had overtaken them. Thus the photos I got look more like an impromptu picnic than a protest. But a few of the students stood up to come and explain to me why they were protesting. They explained (if I remember correctly) that there had been unjust dealings when it came to their examinations. The details were unclear to me, but nepotism and corruption seemed to be at the core of it. Some students were being favored with the opportunity to take exams (perhaps extra times) when others were not. Certain professors on the faculty seemed to be the root of this corruption. But one of the students was quick to note, “Professor Sangi was never one of these corrupt faculty members! He is a good man.”
I thanked them and wished them good luck, and we were back in the car towards the building where Chachu Zafar has his office. He knew that I was in town, but didn’t know that we were coming on this day. We found him sitting at his desk in his office, an airy space with high ceilings and a crisp, spare elegance.
The joy on Chachu’s face was radiant when we surprised him in the doorway. “I cannot believe it!” he exclaimed. “I never would have thought that I would see my own daughter here, before my eyes.”
The language around the idea of family in Sindh is fluid in this way: I call him “uncle,” but he calls me “daughter” (beti). But this fluidity is not a sign of weakness, but rather of the intensity of the emotion that is felt between familial relations. Using different words to address relations has a way of elevating and honoring them, while also indicating how close they are to the heart. And these words have deep meaning. I could feel it even before my trip to Sindh, that there was a genuine emotion present when Sindhi people call me adi (sister) or beti. But the depth and warmth of that emotion were not fully apparent to me until I came to Sindh. This meeting with dear Chachu Zafar is a perfect example. He had never meet me in person before, and had only had small interactions with me on Facebook, apart from observing my communications with Papa Saeed. But there could be no doubt of his love and sincerity when he called me ‘daughter.’
He put his hands on my head in blessing.
And then he invited us to sit, and served us tea.
Post Script. I am ending this blog entry here for the sake of time and length, but I do have a few more vignettes from different hospital settings to recall in future blog entries. Particularly my visit to the Taluka Hospital Sakrand, where I got a glimpse of women’s healthcare in Sindh. But I will save that for a future entry focusing on women’s issues.
I do want to include this one stray scene before I close. This is from a different day, when I visited the ER of the hospital which Papa Saeed used to work, and where he is very well known. This is one of his patients, greeting him with love and gratitude. I witnessed many people greet Papa in this way. The reverence is unmistakeable.
I wish I had made a sound recording from my first morning waking up in Larkana. Or really from any morning there, as it is always the same -- but on the first morning it was astonishing to me because of its newness. First off there was the rooster, who starts his morning devotional at about 4 AM, though there was nothing especially new to me about that, because of course I have heard roosters often enough in America. Having fallen asleep in a jet-lagged daze quite early the night before, I did start to wake up at the time of the rooster’s first crowings. But I must have dozed off again for a while, because the sound that I really woke up to was the call to prayer. And that was completely and utterly new to me.
And how to describe this sound! It was as if the sky itself were waking up, and not in one place, but in many. Not all at exactly the same second, but over the span of a prolonged moment as the different muezzins (cantors) of the different mosques throughout the city approached their loudspeakers. Some were close by, some farther away. All beginning to chant, not together, but with the same purpose, announcing that it was time for fajr, the sunrise prayer. The sound coming from even the closest speakers was hazy to my ears, blurring one Arabic word into the next like wet paint on a canvas. The combined effect was like an out-of-focus panorama, with a few voices standing out vividly in the foreground and many others of all sizes populating the middle and receding into the background.
And at this same time it seemed that the city itself was waking up, too. Presumably hundreds or thousands were actually performing their namaz, reciting their fajr prayer. But I observed over my weeks in Sindh that while religion is a constant companion of most Pakistanis, the more obvious rituals (like the performing of prayers, or the attending of mosques on Fridays) are often not strictly observed. At least, not “observed” in the kind of way I am used to as an American who grew up in the Christian church. In my home culture, “church” was a very specific thing, a segregated part of the week, for which you dressed differently, and which, though not unpleasant, was always a bit jarring, a bit out of step with the rest of life. (And that in itself is not a criticism of church--because a change of pace is often a welcome thing, especially with the harried schedules of the Western world.) But what I noticed in the predominantly Islamic space of Sindh was a presence of religion that was far more fluid in people’s lives, and yet in a strange way, less intrusive.
This is a big topic worthy of much deeper consideration, and already I am tempted to go on a tangent that would keep us from starting my day in Larkana for many paragraphs to come. But I will save those thoughts for a later entry, and for now finish off this soundscape that I am trying to create. The morning chanting came from every direction, a warm and enlivening sound, and it occurred to me that many people (not only here but all over the Muslim world) must have heard these sounds either in their morning slumbers or upon awakening for every day of their lives. The only comparable sound in the Christian culture is church bells, which do serve a similar purpose, if one happens to live close enough to a church to hear the bells, and if the bells are still in working order. Perhaps centuries ago one would have been able to hear a collage of church bells in the morning, coming from multiple churches in a town, covering the same kind of aural space as these many chantings of muezzins. But even then the sound would have a different quality, because what I was hearing this morning in Larkana was of course not just music but voices. And as they drew near to the end of their chants, it seemed that many other sounds had awoken as well. It was as if all the wheels of the city were slowly spinning into motion. Things began to whir and grind and clatter. Traces of laughter and conversation and calling and murmuring seemed to mix in. And the sounds of many animals, moving about, bleating and neighing, tweeting and chirping. The sound of papa Saeed’s peahen, a magnificent honk, punctuating the air at various intervals.
All this seemed to come to life, around 6 AM, on that morning. A Sindhi morning--just like any other, but my first.
Once awake, I was better able to take in my immediate surroundings than I had been the previous night in my sleepiness. Papa Saeed had placed us in the biggest bedroom of the house -- a room that takes up the whole third floor of his large house. This room had originally been the master suite, we learned later, but Papa and Ammi had moved themselves to the first-floor bedroom when Ammi’s sciatica had started making stair-climbing unpleasant. When they moved out of that room, my second sister Moomal moved in -- but we actually were not told this until much later, because no one wanted us to worry that we were displacing Moomal from her room. We were under the impression that this was a guest suite now.
And what a suite it was! An enormous bed and vanity and wardrobe occupied only about a third of the space, next to the bathroom, which we also had to ourselves. The rest of the expanse was all open, big enough for two other rooms. Two plush armchairs and a coffee table rested in the other far end, nearer to the door, close to the curved wall of windows. Papa had himself designed this house and had it built to his own specifications (something he shares in common with my American dad, who designed his own house too), but I had assumed upon first seeing this mansion that it must be quite old, because it seems a classic, and its materials are so fine. The defining feature of the Sangi house is a cylindrical portion at the back which extends up all three floors, and is plated with windows all the way up. They are cleverly designed one-way mirror windows, so that light reflects from them (useful especially in the sweltering Larkana summers), and no one can see in from outside. One whole wall of our bedroom suite was part of this curved window structure.
The previous night, as we were getting settled, all our belongings were brought up to us by a series of people, some of them servants, some of them new cousins and brothers, some of them we wouldn’t ever be able to identify. Our six bouquets of roses had been stacked on the coffee table. An electric keyboard had been left on a chair for Andrew (who is a musician), as well as a tamboora (see previous entry for explanation of that), which Papa had found somewhere or other. We had also been brought a tray with dishes of pasta in the evening, which had amazed us, because we were not used to being served food in our room. But that turned out to be only a minor surprise compared to what awaited us in the morning.
Papa Saeed, before going to sleep, perhaps at 2 AM after the wanwah celebration, had sent us a text message saying that he knew we would likely wake very early, so we would find breakfast outside our room. And there indeed, to our amazement, was another tray and a huge assortment of items that had been gathered for us. A loaf of bread, a toaster, some apple jelly, two teacups and saucers and spoons, teabags and instant coffee, a carton of Nestle milk, an electric water boiler, packages of biscuits (cookies, in American terminology), and probably more things that I can’t remember. All this had been left for us as we slept through the party we were supposed to be attending, so that we would not be hungry or experience any discomfort at all in the morning. Remembering this, I feel the same warm emotions welling up in me that I had that first day, and that I continued to have throughout my time in Sindh. So much care was given to us at each moment -- so much love in everything. I hope I can convey to all my readers how special this is.
By the way, this first morning in Larkana also happened to be Christmas morning. And it is the only Christmas I have spent away from my home country, though I was not too sentimental about that. Still my Sangi family were sensitive to it, and had not forgotten our holiday. My youngest sister, Mehak, and her fiancé, Daniyal, had decorated our room for us. Outside the door, in the hallway, they had pinned up a glittery garland to spell out MERRY CHRISTMAS in large red and green letters. Inside they had placed a small potted tree, some sort of conifer, which was decorated with lights and Christmas ornaments. (Later in the day, several of our younger new cousins came up to the room and sang some Christmas carols with us. They all knew the chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and sang it with great gusto. We sang the verses for them, and explained how it is mostly about demanding free food, and they laughed with us and sang some more.)
So Andrew and I enjoyed our tea and breakfast that Christmas morning in the sunlight from the curved windows and the blinking lights of our little Christmas tree and the fragrance still emanating from all our rose bouquets. We sent Papa a text to let him know that we were awake, because he had also requested that. But we figured he would need to sleep a while longer, having partied so late the night before. Soon after this, however, we got a knock on the door, and there was Papa. I gave him a hug and apologized again for not coming to last night’s party. It was clear that we had been missed, and many people had asked about us, but Papa did not make us feel bad. He said he knew that if we had gone to sleep there was no way we would get back up for the party. And he giggled his patented, world-brightening giggle. And all was well.
“Come on, I take you on a tour of my house,” he said. And then he quickly corrected himself, “YOUR house, Sweet EM, and yours too, Andrew, son-in-law.” We followed him through the hallways of this airy house, which was still new to us, but which would soon feel like we had spent our lives there. Papa’s posture was that of a classic South Asian lord-of-the-manor: his chin high, his hands linked behind his back except when gesticulating towards his various rooms and possessions. And we observed with due admiration the home that he has built for himself over the past decades, all the product of his own merit and hard work. Now, I don’t know if the Sangis themselves would consider their home to be all that big or grand, compared to others of the same status. Because Sindhi families tend to be large and close-knit, it is not uncommon for homes to be big and accommodate many people, and it is common for families of the middle class and higher to have servants. (More about servants in a later entry, since that is one of the very big cultural differences between America and Sindh.) But to us, it certainly seemed so.
Despite the spaciousness of the house, though, it soon became clear to us that not everyone had the kind of kingly accommodations that we had been given. In fact, all the other bedrooms seemed to be packed with people, at least two each, and in many cases it seemed there were more like four or five, some sleeping in beds, some on couches, and some on the floor. It was probably 8 AM at this time, and apart from us and a couple of servants, the whole house was still asleep. Andrew and I would of course have happily waited to have our tour of the house when people were awake, not wanting to disturb them, but Papa was unconcerned. He ceremoniously opened each bedroom door, most of them creaking audibly under his hand, and described each scene in his uncontrollably booming voice: “THERE - PEOPLE SLEEPING ……. AND HERE…. MORE PEOPLE SLEEPING….” (Those who know Papa only via his Facebook profile will be pleased to learn that his characteristic all-capital style of typing suits not only his giant personality, but also his voice, which is deep and resounding even when he tries to speak softly.)
In each room we peeked in dutifully, but also tried to minimize the disturbance of the sleeping relatives by urging Papa back out into the hallway. “OKAY,” he said, smiling, “YOU WANT TO GO SEE LARKANA?” And we agreed that this was a wiser plan.
But this blog entry has already reached a substantial length, so I shall pause here. The next entry will share with you what we saw on that morning in Larkana, and the mehandi celebrations later in the day.
Countless stories are still waiting to be told.
Image at top left is a digital
portrait by Pakistani artist
Imran Zaib, based on one of my own photographic self-portraits in Thari dress.